PITTSBURGH — By just saying hello, a human trafficker can know whether or not a young boy or girl is worth pursuing as a victim, an FBI analyst explained at a recent training session with 20 local health and social services employees.
The FBI has hosted a dozen such sessions in the city over the last two months to educate them about combating human trafficking. Social service caseworkers are often the ones closest to potential victims.
The hourlong sessions look at signals for at-risk youth, explain available tools and services for victims, and provide an opportunity for caseworkers and others involved in health and social services to discuss the issue.
“We started this relationship with the FBI because we were pretty sure we had these trafficking cases in the population we work with,” said Jacki Hoover, assistant deputy director at Office of Children, Youth and Families of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. “We felt that cases were not being identified because our staff didn’t really understand the broad definition of trafficking.”
Human trafficking is defined as “the use of force, threat of force, fraud or coercion to recruit, harbor, transport, provide or obtain any person for labor or commercial sex, or to cause a person under 18 to engage in a commercial sex act,” according to the Justice Department.
Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives approved five bills aimed at curbing human trafficking, including one that seeks to better equip child welfare agencies to prevent victimization. The legislation also would offer services and training, like the drill in Pittsburgh, to help identify victims.
The Justice Department estimates that each year 300,000 children are at risk for commercial sexual exploitation in the United States. Experts say that’s low.
“It’s so hard to nail down an actual number,” said Anne Rackow of the Project to End Human Trafficking, a nonprofit group in Pittsburgh. “It is a crime hidden on purpose.”