In a sandwich shop between Butternut and Catherine streets in Syracuse’s North Side neighborhood, Nicole Ashby cleaned the tables at her job as she listened to her cousin talk about prostitutes. The tables stand clean and shiny but she continued to clean it until she agreed to talk about her missing sister.
Ashby’s younger half sister was one of the 300,000 American children that are sex trafficked every year. Ashby hasn’t seen her sister since she was nine years old, when her sister’s biological father took her to Alabama and never came back.
Ashby’s stepfather started trafficking her half sister for money when she was eight years old and continued for 12 years. What resulted were two children with unknown fathers, a young woman with trauma and a sister who wants to be reunited with her sibling.
According to the U.S. State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons report, children under 18 who are recruited, solicited, transported or provided to perform a commercial sex act is considered to be human trafficking. Unlike sex trafficking for adults, whether or not the child was coerced or forced bears no weight when considering the offense to be child sex trafficking.
Melissa Bowers, Ashby's cousin, said it's common for her to see prostitutes on her way home from work. Bowers said she always thought the prostitutes she saw were there on their own will. She said she never thought of it as human trafficking. But Ashby knows that her younger sister was a victim of it.
“I think the government should have the police be more aware of this, be more cautious of it,” she said. “They should be in areas that this is happening around that they know of to watch out for young girls. Young girls don’t deserve this.”
This notion is one of the stigmas associated with prostitution, according to Syracuse City Court Judge Theodore Limpert. He agreed with Ashby’s sentiments. He treats people who come into his court charged with prostitution as trafficking victims, or “victims of trauma,” Limpert said. His court helps victims with whatever they need, from a simple identification card to a home, job training, prenatal or mental care.
“We work with them to try to get them stable and out of the lifestyle and hopefully break the tie with their trafficker,” Limpert said. He said breaking this tie can be difficult because the traffickers have a very strong bond with these women and they often offer or provide drugs to the prostitutes to keep them coming back. He adds that the “pimps” would sometimes show up in court to intimidate the victims or attempt to display love toward them.
Limpert’s court meets twice a month, and over the last three years has had 150 cases. He uses a different approach of sitting with the victims and counselors instead of sitting at his bench to create a non-threatening environment for the victims. Of the 150 cases, only 25 percent of the victims have failed or repeated the program. Limpert is open to having the victims who fail the program repeat the program.
“It may take a couple of times to break this bond,” Limpert said. Usually, it takes six months for a victim to complete participation in the program but sometimes it can be take longer if needed.
Limpert and his court colleagues work to end the cycle between victims and traffickers but also help people understand what human trafficking is. Recently, Limpert and his team received the news that McMahon/Ryan Child Advocacy Center earned a federal grant that would allow for the court’s patient navigator to become a full-time staff member as well as hiring new staff members that would benefit the program. He hopes that this funding will allow his court to take in cases from all over Onondaga the County.
“The ultimate goal is to decriminalize prostitution and focus more on the traffickers and purchasers of sex instead of the women. This is the goal but it's going to take a while in the United States,” Limpert said.
The defense counselor in most of Limpert’s cases, Lisa Cuomo, believes the human trafficking court is here to help the victims, and that the victims who end up with prostitution charges are there because of circumstance. “A lot of these victims have mental health issues. The criminal system isn’t meant for people with mental health issues. There should be a mental health court,” Cuomo said.
The Junior League of Syracuse, Inc., has dedicated the last 95 years to bettering the lives and women in Syracuse. The organization created the human trafficking awareness program under its former president Heather Wallace. While she cannot provide exact figures on how much trafficking occurs in Syracuse, she said the problem is present in the city.
“If the girl or the woman is not keeping the money from the transaction she is being trafficked, period,” Wallace said. “By federal law, if they are underage, they are being trafficked, period.”