Since May 2013, 29 victims of human trafficking have been identified in the Monroe County area through the Safe Harbour program — seven this year alone.
An additional 77 girls are at risk of falling victim to trafficking and sexual exploitation, of being robbed of their childhood and traumatized, said Center for Youth Executive Director Elaine Spaull.
“This may be a life sentence,” Spaull said.
And officials believe many more victims can be helped as well. That’s why the county and Center for Youth have launched a new public awareness campaign to highlight a pervasive problem.
The community has a role to play in helping victims, said County Executive Maggie Brooks. Of the 2.5 million victims worldwide, 98 percent of them are young women and girls.
“That’s disturbing and unacceptable,” Brooks said. “We can do something about it.”
Filmmakers from Rochester Institute of Technology in collaboration with the center created two public awareness videos online to assist in education and awareness efforts. Previous efforts targeted schools, health care providers, and those who work with youths to help identify signs and ways to help, Spaull said. Now the aim is to educate the public at large.
Warning signs include malnourishment, sexually transmitted infections and diseases, multiple pregnancies, unexplained injuries and history of running away, among others.
The center assists 22,000 children, many of whom are alone and homeless and most vulnerable to sexual exploitation, Spaull said.
“There has been nothing more difficult than the heartbreak we see in trafficking, but there’s hope,” Spaull said.
The sentiment couldn’t be said as little as six years ago.
The New York State Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act was signed into law in 2008. Before its passage, sexually exploited youths were prosecuted criminally, rather than treated as victims.
The youths often had no access to services that could address their needs and instead often returned to the streets after serving their time.
The county and center jointly applied to the state for funding and in fiscal 2012-13 was selected as one of five counties to promote awareness and provide services, which include safe housing, providing access to medical and mental health care, financial assistance and basic living and safety needs.
Officials estimate more than 1,000 adults, 1,000 youths and 75 agencies received the message through the program.
The collaboration among government agencies and nonprofit organizations has worked well, Spaull said. Of all the victims in the state, Monroe County has identified half of them.
Because of the effectiveness of collaborating among government agencies locally, “we are making a dent in it,” Brooks said. But more needs to be done.
“This is not a new problem,” Brooks said, “but it is a problem.”
On the Web
To see videos attempting to boost public awareness of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, visit centerforyouth.net.