Addressing the Epidemic of Human Trafficking

Health care providers learned about human trafficking and how to be more aware of the issue at a Nov. 21 lecture.

As an orthopedic surgeon with nearly 40 years of experience, Dr. Robert Keehn is still eager to learn how he can enhance the type of services he offers.

Keehn, who runs his own private practice with offices in Owings Mills, Lutherville and Pikesville, said he is always looking for innovative ways to treat patients suffering from various physical injuries.

Last week, Keehn and a roomful of other health care providers at the Park Heights JCC received a crash course on the growing epidemic of human trafficking through the “Human Trafficking in Maryland: An Invisible Epidemic” lecture on Nov. 21.

“What’s interesting is that as an orthopedist, I really didn’t know much about human trafficking,” said Keehn, a past president of OrthoMaryland and current chair of Maimonides Society. “I think there is some prevalence in this area, and it’s important to know what we as health care providers can do to fight what’s going on.”

At the event sponsored by the Maimonides Society and the Baltimore Jewish Council, Capt. Wes Fischer of the Baltimore County Police Department and Dr. Joyce Williams of the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force provided participants with useful tips, resources and a means to raise awareness on the devastating effects of human trafficking.

A greater light has been shed on human trafficking in Maryland since 2007, when the General Assembly created the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force to help identify victims and prosecute offenders.

Advocates such as Baltimore Jewish Council metropolitan issues chair Nathan Willner feels attorneys could get more prosecutions if they relay what factors the community should look for to detect more cases.

“The victims, the customers, the perpetrators, they all look like regular people,” said Willner, who is also president of the Maryland-DC Creditors Bar Association. “[Human trafficking] is not something that someone will initially notice. No community is immune from these types of behaviors, and the only way we can deal with it is by talking about it and not sweeping things under the rug.”

Because human trafficking is difficult to track, Williams, an assistant professor of graduate and professional nursing studies at Stevenson University, said it is unknown how widespread the activity might be.

In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, members of the Maryland Human Traffic Task Force assisted 396 victims of trafficking, according to figures on the group’s website.

While Fischer and Williams both agreed the data is useful, they said that it’s far from a complete picture.

The average age of girls when they first become sex trafficking victims in Maryland is 15, Williams said. The abuse by men who befriend these young girls starts with gifts, money and promises to develop a mutual trust.

According to Fischer, Baltimore in particular is a hub for much of this activity because of its proximity to the heavily traveled I-95 corridor, the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and the disparity of wealth and poverty.

Fischer said the instant gratification and thrill-seeking culture that casinos, sports, gambling and red-light districts promote in the area all lend themselves as hotbeds for human trafficking.

“We’ve seen a lot that people are seeking that rush of not knowing what is going to happen when they show up to meet a girl,” Fischer said. “Regardless of the consequences, sometimes that may not be enough for any of the parties involved to stop from engaging in such behavior.”

At the discussion, Williams provided tips to for certain behaviors to look for. Possible signs of human trafficking stem from poverty, homelessness, a history of violence and child neglect, among others.

Another signal is a relative or spouse who seems to have authority for when someone comes and goes. Williams said those who are in control will use manipulation — gifts and money, for instance — to keep them in line.

“Once a victim is trafficked, it can be hard for them to quit,” Williams said. “They will be threatened by violence to themselves and family members, which is obviously very intimidating.”

To combat such activity, local police have ramped up their efforts to control and deter human trafficking through a bevy of different tactics.

In the 20 years Fischer has been on the force, he said sting operations, undercover assignments and investigations at massage parlors that may engage in prostitution services have been successful to a certain extent.

Still, Fischer strongly believes that education is the way to go in raising awareness.

“Our belief is that if we can provide services and ramp up those efforts, it can go a long way to stopping or preventing someone from getting into this lifestyle before it’s too late,” he said. “We’re also committed to doing whatever it is that we can in law enforcement to provide whatever ways we can.”

Ultimately, the hope for Fischer and Williams is that more people speak out and take a stand so that other children are saved from traveling down a similar gloomy path.

“It’s important to be a voice for these people when they have nowhere else to turn,” Williams said.

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