Calling attention to a hidden problem: Sex trafficking

  • Donna Sabella, a psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner working in corrections and an international expert on human trafficking who is a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, speaks at a forum at Greenfield Community College on sex trafficking. STAFF PHOTO/MAX MARCUS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/9/2019 10:39:43 PM

GREENFIELD — Sex trafficking is something many people like to think happens elsewhere, but according to those who work on the issue, it is here as well in Franklin County.

The Sex Trafficking in Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region collaborative initially grew out of the Sheriff’s Department’s interest to learn more about the complex topic. It was a result of the department’s work with incarcerated women, which began to provide a range of substance misuse treatment and other counseling services to women in February 2018, after hearing some of their stories.

Sheriff Christopher Donelan, who is also co-chair of the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region, said a young woman named KiKi came into the jail with a “troubling past” a while back. He said she had been a victim of sex trafficking and exploitation, but while at the jail, immersed herself in a treatment program and took advantage of every minute she was there.

“She cleared her head and her mind,” Donelan said. “She found her voice. She made a decision her life would change.”

Donelan said he met with her and she told him she had a story to tell, but didn’t know how to do so. Donelan and his staff helped her find the way. He said it’s people like KiKi who prompted the collaboration.

“Because of our work in the last year with incarcerated women, we’ve had a front-row seat witnessing the vast impact of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation to this vulnerable population,” Donelan said. “We are eager to call attention to this hidden problem in our rural region.”

A survivor

Spearheaded by Donelan’s office and the Opioid Task Force, a panel was held Wednesday morning at Greenfield Community College. It was organized to bring more awareness to people throughout the county.

KiKi Brown was one of the panelists. The 26-year-old mother and poet referred to herself as a survivor as she began to speak.

“In elementary school, I watched my mother with men,” she started. “I watched the violence and pain, and I lost my 12-year-old virginity when I was sold for cocaine.”

Brown said she started thinking of sexual acts as a paycheck, something that was normal. She said she began using cocaine and then other drugs until she became addicted. When she dropped out of high school, she ended up at age 17 under the care of the state Department of Children and Families. When she turned 18, she got a place with her boyfriend and danced in a strip club.

She said she lost custody of her 1½-year-old because of her drug use and met a man when she was 22. She traveled with him to Florida, where he abandoned her. That’s when she met two men who held her at gunpoint and forced her into sex trafficking. She didn’t make it back home until last year with her second child, which she had in captivity.

“I ended up in jail on an old warrant,” she said. “I enjoyed the safety of being locked away. I also got to reflect on almost losing my life.”

She joined the Voices from Inside writing group at the jail in Greenfield and started writing poetry. She read “I’m Alive” to the more than 200 people who attended the event, and many tears fell — hers and others.

“I’m a survivor, not a victim,” she said. “I started healing when I wrote the poem.”

Panel discussion

The panel discussion was moderated by Marianne Bullock, capacity building manager for the Full Frame Initiative and program manager of the Moms Do Care — EMPOWER Program at Baystate Franklin Medical Center. The panel also included Franklin County Sheriff’s Office Re-entry Case Worker Jen Brzezinski, TeamClearHeels413 Founder Isabella DeLuca and Montague Catholic Social Ministries Coordinated Family and Community Engagement Coordinator Dr. Mary King.

Keynote speaker Dr. Donna Sabella, a psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner working in corrections and an international expert on human trafficking who is a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, said people in the community, especially those working with victims, need to distinguish between sex workers and sex trafficking victims. She said one works for their own reasons, whether to pay the bills, put food on the table or put a roof over their and their family’s heads. The other is forced, threatened, coerced to work for someone else, like Brown was during her ordeal.

Sabella said men and boys can be victims of sex trafficking, but more often, it’s women. She said traffickers look for a “weak link” and then groom them. She said if a trafficker approaches someone and they tell him to go away, he’ll move on to someone else.

She said it’s very complicated, because some victims get attached to their trafficker, while others don’t speak English and can’t communicate what they want to others. Still others are afraid of retaliation from the trafficker or police.

“Many are dealing with other issues like poverty, addiction, low self-esteem, developmental delays and more,” Sabella said. “They are at high risk of being trafficked.”

She said a victim can be found just about anywhere, though her trafficker may not let her out of his sight.

“Everyone’s situation and story is different,” she said. “Sometimes there’s no fear, so it’s difficult to identify victims.”

She said if a provider or even someone out shopping should notice someone acting submissive, fearful or is accompanied by someone who is speaking for her, it could be a victim. She said victims are also at high risk of having anxiety disorders, post traumatic stress, depression, addiction and psychological trauma of all types.

King said she works with many migrant families in the area and has seen quite a bit of sex trafficking within that population. She said because there’s an intersection of highways in Franklin County, it’s easy for people to move drugs, goods and people. She said that many times migrants work on farms and do “dirty labor” for low wages.

“Wherever you have migrants, you’re going to have trafficking,” she said. “So many of them are exploited.”

King said wage theft, housing fraud, abuse, violence and rape are present in this area.

“There’s a tendency to think this all happens somewhere else,” she said. “We are that somewhere else.”

Brzezinski said she works with incarcerated women who have engaged in sex work to support addictions and their basic needs. She said there needs to be more options available to women in crisis or the cycle keeps going.

“Many of the women who are sex trafficked are groomed at a very early age,” she said. “Many of the stories I’ve heard are similar to Kiki’s.”

Services and support

“Sex trafficking and sexual exploitation in all its forms is a complex and multi-faceted issue,” Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, who is a co-chair of the Opioid Task Force, said. “We offer a range of services and supports to individuals who have been affected and encourage members of our community to get us involved when sex trafficking or sexual exploitation is suspected.”

Franklin County Register of Probate John Merrigan, who also co-chairs the Opioid Task Force, said, “We want and need to do everything we can to prevent vulnerable populations from being sexually exploited, especially if they are in the early stages of recovery from a substance or opioid use disorder. We see this event as the first of many to rally our community to act to address this urgent topic here.”

At the end of the panel discussion — just before people broke into small groups to discuss what they’d heard all morning — panelists said people who are at risk of being trafficked or have already been need safe places to go where they can talk about their experiences. They said somehow the stigma needs to be removed. They said there’s a need for more safe houses and more housing in general. They said wait lists are too long, because there aren’t enough resources.

“Crimes don’t happen Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” King said. “We have to have 24/7 availability. We have to have transportation and child care for people.”

Clinicians provided by the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, the Center for Human Development and Clinical & Support Options were available to those who needed to talk to someone as a result of the morning’s content, and comfort dog Officer Donut and his handler Greenfield Police Department Lt. William Gordon were available to people.

“Donut just being there helps people sometimes,” Gordon said. “People form a bond with him, pet him, and their blood pressure lowers, their breathing calms and their stress is reduced.”

Organizations that partnered with the Sheriff’s Office are: the Children’s Advocacy Center of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Inc., Greenfield Police Department, Massachusetts Trial Court, Montague Catholic Social Ministries, NELCWIT, Northwestern District Attorney’s Office, North Quabbin Community Coalition, North Quabbin Recovery Center, Second Congregational Church, Tapestry, The RECOVER Project, The Salasin Project and Two Rivers (Center for Human Development)

For more information, visit: www.fcso-ma.us or Sheriff01301ma on Facebook. Also visit: www.opioidtaskforce.org or Opioid Task Force on Facebook.

Reach Anita Fritz at
413-772-0261, ext. 269,
or afritz@recorder.com.




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