Massachusetts' human trafficking law — less than two years old — is described as comprehensive, because it mandated the establishment of the Interagency Human Trafficking Policy Task Force, which brings advocates for victims, prosecutors, academics and cops into the same room, under the same roof, with the goal of making life difficult for pimps and their ilk.
The law gave the state’s top law enforcement official broader statutory tools to prosecute modern slavers.
"This statute give us enforcement tools to look at providing the appropriate programs and services for young people, particularly, pulled into the life, and will help us educate the public on what we need to do to make sure we stop human trafficking," said Attorney General Martha Coakley in 2011. "We need to address how we fund the kind of services and programs for victims to prevent this, and more importantly, to get them out of the life once they've been pulled in."
On November 21, 2011, Gov. Deval Patrick's signature transformed a comprehensive human trafficking bill into law; Massachusetts was one of the last of three state’s to do so.
But since it went into effect, officials here have wasted no time in targeting offenders. Attorney General Martha Coakley has prosecuted several major trafficking cases in the intervening months, including the owners of a nondescript massage parlor in Wellesley that was raided in October.
Wenji Dong was one of three people put on trial in connection with operation of the Sun Spa. During a court session, an assistant attorney general says they were able to get the defendant to detail what was happening behind closed doors at the former massage studio off Route 9.
"She did tell law enforcement during that interview that she knew that what are known as 'happy ending massages' were offered at that location," the attorney said.
In recent months the Attorney General’s Office has used money laundering laws, among others, to take apart another key human trafficking network spanning multiple communities in Massachusetts including Bedford, Billerica, Medford, Reading, Wilmington and Woburn.
As WGBH has reported previously, and confirmed by the Attorney General’s Office, many of the victims of these networks are being transported from New York after arriving from China and other parts of East Asia. Their services are advertised via the Internet.
Massachusetts prosecution of human trafficking cases beginning in 2012 catapulted it in state rankings from worst to among the most improved, according to the Polaris Project, a national group that monitors and assist victims of this crime.
The state is now listed in the top tier according to this year’s rankings. Rhode Island is named as a second-tier state owing largely to a lack of resources while New Hampshire is listed as a third-tier state in combatting human trafficking — a designation for states that have made little headway in passing laws or enforcing them.
Even with a top-tier designation, the Massachusetts human trafficking network task force says much more must be done to assist prostituted victims, and those forced to work in kitchens, industry, or in homes under conditions that amount to involuntary servitude.
Here are some of the recommendations to the state:
- Establish a human trafficking-survivor safehouse pilot program to provide long-term housing to victims seeking to leave “the life” as the underground trade is called;
- Increase the capacity of existing victim services programs;
- Set up a first-offender “John school,” for men arrested for buying sex;
- Pilot a data collection program to exchange info among cops and victim services;
- Help identify victims early on in schools and hospitals;
- Provide language training for first responsders;
- Launch a public awareness campaign similar to successful models in Washington state, for example.
It’s not clear how many people in Massachusetts and New England are victims of human trafficking; and officials conceded that making that determination is difficult. What they know is this: In raid after raid on area hotel and motel rooms, massage parlors, overcrowded housing and sordid apartment complexes, police have rescued dozens of individuals who have been forced into the life. And task force member Cherie Jimenez argues that poverty and growing inequality are feeding human trafficking.
"Here's a kid who comes out, has no job, probably dropped out of school, mostly been in residential programs — so what are they going to do? How are they going to survive in this economy? What are they going to do, go out and rent an apartment — a market-rate apartment that's probably $1,000, $1,500? How are they going to support that? You have young people who fell through the cracks, you have foreign nationals, too, that fall into different things. It's about poverty. It's about inequality, exclusion. The answer here is to put the resources into the places that work, so that women, and young women especially, have a way out so they have a better life."
Yet another factor that is being addressed by the state’s Interagency Human Trafficking Policy Task Force.