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FOX43 Reveals: How human trafficking has taken root in Pennsylvania

An unnerving look at how a young victim was sold for sex in central Pennsylvania and the signs that often go undetected.

DAUPHIN COUNTY, Pa. — Pennsylvania is ranked 11th in the country for having one of the worst human trafficking problems. People are held against their will or manipulated into forced labor and prostitution. Many victims are born and raised in central Pennsylvania. FOX43 Reveals a local hotspot for human trafficking and the signs that often go undetected.

A local victim chose to tell her story with FOX43 Reveals under the condition that we did not reveal her identity or disclose exactly where she grew up. We will refer to her as "Ana." Her story takes place in a central Pennsylvania neighborhood.

“It got really bad, really quick,” said Ana.

After spending most of her childhood in foster care, Ana ran away a few months before high school graduation. She met her trafficker at a gas station. She was 17 years old and homeless.

“It was on Valentine’s Day actually. I just hear someone out of the edge of their car go ‘I wish you were my Valentine.’ I looked back and it was just a guy in a car,” explained Ana.

That guy in a car gained her trust and offered Ana a life off the streets. She had a roof over her head and food in her stomach. However, she soon was forced into a world of drugs, alcohol, and prostitution. Ana did not realize she was a victim of sex trafficking until she was in too deep.

ANA: It started off with his friends. Then, he started taking me to hotels. I was being kept up for days at a time. If you missed a call, you got hit.

RACHEL YONKUNAS: What was the turning point when you realized, “I have to get out of this situation?”

ANA: He would take me to places like New York City, and other cities where it just was more frightening, and it kept getting scarier and scarier. I think that was when I realized that if I stay here, I’m going to die.

RACHEL YONKUNAS: How did you find the courage to escape that?

ANA: After one of the beatings, I ran away out of a window.

Ana was found passed out on the side of a highway and she was finally on the path to freedom. However, there are thousands of other human trafficking victims in Pennsylvania who aren't free.

Sometimes young victims are local students and they are identified in area schools, said Rhonda Hendrickson, Vice President of Programs with the YWCA Greater Harrisburg. Hendrickson told FOX43 Reveals that Harrisburg is a hotspot for human trafficking. Currently, her team has between 30 and 35 open cases. They handle about 60 cases a year.

“Every day we walk by victims,” said Hendrickson. “They hide in plain sight right in front of us because we don’t recognize what trafficking looks like.”

The signs of human trafficking that often go undetected included poor mental health or abnormal behavior, substance use or addiction, poor physical health, poor hygiene, lack of control over their money, and few personal belongings. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security lists other common indicators to help recognize human trafficking.

Hendrickson said human trafficking is the second-largest criminal enterprise in the world and it has taken root in Pennsylvania. In 2017, 210 human trafficking cases were reported in the state. The number jumped to 275 in 2018. Within the first six months of 2019, Pennsylvania had 126 reported cases of human trafficking.

“We feel like it doesn’t touch us, but the unfortunate thing is, it does,” said Hendrickson. “If you have a massage, if you get your nails done, if you go to the restaurant for your evening dinner, these are places where labor trafficking, and often times mixed with sex trafficking, is occurring in our communities.”

In 2014, the YWCA Greater Harrisburg helped to launch PAATH-15: the Pennsylvania Alliance Against Trafficking in Humans, Route 15. The program connects five rape crisis centers, four human trafficking response teams, and numerous other resources along the 12-county 8,400 square mile Route 15 corridor. PAATH-15 has helped 300 victims and counting.

RELATED: YWCA Greater Harrisburg receives $1.3 million in federal grants for victims of human trafficking

“It’s really about what can we do to keep this person safe today and to break some of those cycles that happen. The dependency that develops, the trauma bonds,” explained Hendrickson.

The problem is so concerning, state lawmakers passed the Buyer Beware Act, which increases penalties for traffickers and people who patronize victims. Governor Tom Wolf signed the bill into law on February 5th, 2020.

RELATED: Governor Wolf signs bill to end "scourge of human trafficking" in Pennsylvania

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Ana. “It’s not an easy one, but it’s one who have to work for.”

Ana’s story is outside the norm. The FBI tracked down her trafficker and she testified against him in federal court. In 2019, 37-year-old Fredrick Brown was sentenced to 33 years in prison for sex and drug trafficking.

Now, Ana is shining a spotlight on this dark problem and hoping to help other young victims find their paths to freedom. 

"There’s no hatred in my heart today because I am who I am because of my past. I’m not going to let what happened to me impact the rest of my life," declared Ana. "I’m going to grow up and live a beautiful life and that’s not something he’s going to have over me, or anyone else at this point. There are no grudges. I have a peace and serenity in my heart. I'm not ashamed anymore like I used to be. This was such a burden for me for a long time. Nothing I ever wanted anyone to know about. I have this newfound passion to just help others."

There are a number of resources available for victims of human trafficking. You can find a list of those services in our area here.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the 24-hour crisis hotline at 1-800-654-1211.

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