A man approached a group of girls at the and told one he’d love to be her modeling agent. He handed her his business card and said he would sign her that day but needed to take her picture, and he’d left his camera in the car.
They walked to his car, and he pushed her inside.
As he drove away, the girl opened the door and rolled out, a maneuver she’d learned from Denene Yates, founder of Safe House of Hope in Baltimore, which provides support services for victims of human trafficking.
Yates speaks at schools around the area, and about a month ago she spoke at the Bain Center in Columbia to more than 100 people about a trade she said was right under their noses.
The girl didn’t want to report the incident, said Yates, but there are still substantial reports of trafficking nonetheless.
“The Department of Justice recognizes [that up to] 293,000 of our own teens” are involved in human trafficking, said Yates.
Human trafficking is a business built around forced labor, defined as a "commercial sex act induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age,” according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Currently, human trafficking is a misdemeanor.
“Abduction of a minor for the purposes of prostitution—and that’s a minor under 16—is a misdemeanor which is a $500 fine and up to a year in jail,” said Yates.
The practice is occurring across the country, and a local group called Howard County Advocacy Group Against Human Trafficking and Slavery (HoCoAGAST) is working to raise awareness locally.
“We believe that Maryland is the perfect storm of factors for human trafficking,” said Jeanne Allert, chair of the Maryland Rescue and Restore Coalition, during a workshop HoCoAGAST sponsored this spring. Allert will also speak at a meeting of HoCoAGAST on Tuesday, June 5, about ways citizens can help.
"We have a significant problem in this area," said Allert, who lives in Howard County. "We are not immune. We have issues with street prostitution and massage parlors."
She added that businesses may appear as a nail salon or cafe but "the true business going on behind those suspiciously shaded windows seems a little suspect."
She said she has been involved in research into sex trafficking at the state level.
"The number-one destination in the United States for child sex tourism is Atlanta," said Allert. "What we learned was they're in a large metropolitan area with major stadiums, major entertainment venues; they have a population in the suburbs that commutes into urban centers; they have affluence and poverty juxtaposed; they have a large drug trade....Is it starting to sound at all familiar to anyone?
Continued Allert: "With Baltimore being a major seaport and our location next to Washington, D.C., but also having , we have upped the ante."
On Tuesday, June 5, Howard County Advocacy Group Against Human Trafficking and Slavery will host a meeting for those interested in volunteering to combat human trafficking. The meeting will be at Owen Brown Interfaith Center (7246 Cradlerock Way) in Columbia from 7 to 8:30 p.m.