Addiction crisis fuels human trafficking

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When police entered a Lee motel room last month, they helped make history.

Inside the Super 8 Motel room they found a woman from Vermont, identified only as Victim No. 2. With her was a man who authorities allege combined a relatively new problem, widespread opioid addiction, with one of the world's oldest criminal enterprises: prostitution.

The arrest of Charles Robinson represents the first charges of human trafficking in Berkshire County, authorities say.

Traffickers have taken advantage of vulnerable populations across the state, even in rural areas like the Berkshires, Attorney General Maura Healey told The Eagle. And today, traffickers are using the desperation that accompanies addiction to their advantage, fueling a criminal enterprise that creates enormous profits from the exploitation of the vulnerable - primarily women.

"[Traffickers] learn that it's very lucrative to sell a girl," said Lisa Goldblatt Grace, director and co-founder of My Life My Choice, a Boston nonprofit focused on combating the commercial sexual exploitation of adolescents. "Drugs you can only sell once; a girl you can sell over and over again."

The use of drugs to compel women to engage in prostitution is expanding, authorities say, changing the way law enforcement looks at prostitution.

Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless said prostitution used to be thought of as a voluntary criminal act.

"A lot of people didn't understand that, in the great majority of cases, it's not voluntary," he said.

Capeless' office now approaches prostitution cases with the belief that the women involved are usually victims, he said.

Donna Gavin, head of the Boston Police Department's Human Trafficking Unit, sees an explicit connection between drug addiction and exploitation, as drug addicts represent a vulnerable population - ideal victims for traffickers.

Traffickers ensnare those struggling with drug addiction in deliberate, calculated ways.

In April, a Lowell man was arrested on charges of trafficking in persons for sexual servitude after allegedly supplying women with fentanyl in exchange for commercial sexual activity.

Traffickers have even parked outside methadone clinics in Massachusetts and lured women with promises of drugs, food and housing to hotels, Healey said.

Once taken in, the women are locked up and forced to have sex with customers, Healey said.

With the high levels of opioid addiction in New England, drugs are being used as a way to recruit and control women in the sex trade, said Julie Dahlstrom, director of the Human Trafficking Clinic at Boston University Law School and a member of the state's former Human Trafficking Task Force.

And once a victim becomes embedded in the "the life" of sexual exploitation, drug addiction can also develop out of the need to cope with the horror of one's daily life, said Steven L. Procopio, an independent consultant and expert on boys, men and trauma.

"It's so prevalent," he said. "It's a way to get through a night's work, being stoned."

The role drug addiction plays in human trafficking in Massachusetts comes amid an epidemic of abuse. Even as the state has increased efforts to reduce opioid overdoses and addiction, the death rate for unintentional and undetermined opioid-related deaths hit a 16-year high in 2015.

The state has seen increasing opioid-related deaths every year since 2011.

LEE CASE

In the Lee case, one of Robinson's alleged victims was kept strung out on heroin during her captivity.

Robinson also allegedly made arrangements to pick up a second victim, who was going through heroin withdrawal, ostensibly to provide her with more drugs.

Prosecutors say Robinson plied his victims with drugs and sold them for sex via online advertisements. One of the women reported being sexually assaulted multiple times over five to eight days before Robinson, 42, of Peekskill, N.Y., was arrested Oct. 29.

Robinson's attorney, Jill Sheldon, has argued that any sexual and drug activity was consensual.

RISING PROBLEM

Although state-specific data is scant due to the hidden, online nature of sexual exploitation, trafficking is a widespread problem in Massachusetts, Healey said.

The attorney general's office has charged more than 25 individuals in connection with human trafficking since Massachusetts' human trafficking law, "An Act Related to the Commercial Exploitation of People," was enacted in 2012.

Healey's office also works closely with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), which arrested 1,437 people for human trafficking offenses in fiscal year 2015. Since 2010, HSI has arrested over 7,000 people for human trafficking offenses. The number of victims of sexual and labor trafficking in the United States is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands.

Demand for commercial sex, primarily from men, fuels sex trafficking, said Michael Shively, senior associate at ABT Associates, a private, nonpartisan research organization in Cambridge.

"The male buyers create the demand,"he said. "One hundred percent of the cause of sex trafficking begins with the buyers."

All of sexual traffickings' millions of dollars comes from the wallets of buyers, many of whom don't know, or claim not to know, that victims may be underage, he said.

Trafficking takes many forms, often quite different from the stereotypical image of foreign nationals kept physically imprisoned, said Dahlstrom, of the BU Law School clinic.

Many victims are U.S. citizens aging out of state care with many vulnerabilities - including drug addiction - and few options to find legal work.

People are still debating the differences between prostitution and sexual trafficking. Some activists consider all commercial sex to be sexual trafficking, while many groups that support legalizing prostitution maintain that sexual trafficking is a "rare extreme" in sex work, Shively said.

Multiple anti-trafficking activists have tried to counter what some call the "myth" of voluntary sex work.

Even those who voluntarily engage in commercial sex work - at least voluntarily in the eyes of the law - may have been introduced to it through underage exploitation.

"The average person who engages in prostitution began as a victim of sex trafficking under the law," Shively said. "The evidence is overwhelming that next to nobody does this unless they're under duress of some kind."

Reach staff writer Patricia LeBoeuf at 413-496-6247 or @BE_pleboeuf.


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