Tougher laws, more services for human trafficking victims sought in Howard County

A 21-year-old human trafficking victim sat unnoticed in a waiting room in Howard County General Hospital nearly three years ago with her trafficker, Rowland Duffey, to get insulin.

Local police called him a Romeo.

Court records show Duffey lured the 21-year-old with promises of a romantic relationship. Her father had just died and she thought Duffey "seemed like a nice guy"; she fell asleep after they watched a movie in a van outside her uncle's house, according to court records.

The victim woke up in an unknown hotel at an unknown location.

Duffey swapped her phone with a pre-paid phone and told her she had to "answer anytime" he called. He would traffick her up and down the East Coast and to an Extended Stay in Columbia, Howard County Circuit Court records show.

Duffey, charged with human trafficking and prostitute-related counts, is serving a 10-year sentence for human trafficking.

The case was a turning point for the Howard County State's Attorney's office, prosecutors said, where human trafficking was akin to a much lesser offense — pandering — and victims were once seen as willing participants in the sex trade.

The $150 billion global sex industry has wound its way into the suburbs of Howard County, from downtrodden motels on Route 1 to a hotel in Columbia.

Traffickers have lured vulnerable women into the sex trade with promises of love, attention and care, forcing them into a world where the reward for resistance is physical or psychological harm, according to an analysis of 50 closed cases in Howard County Circuit Court between 2010 and March 2017.

But as local police aggressively uncover evidence of human trafficking with double the amount of investigative resources they had more than two years ago, prosecutors are still struggling to win convictions.

Nearly 75 percent of charges in cases prosecuted under the felony sex trafficking provision of the law in Howard County Circuit Court were dropped over the last seven years, according to a Baltimore Sun Media group analysis.

Meanwhile, service providers who work for agencies that advocate for victims and provide social services say coordinated services to help victims are scant despite ambitious agendas by county and state initiatives. Comprehensive data to understand the scope of the problem does not yet exist, they say.

Last year, 25 human trafficking investigations were conducted, resulting in 10 arrests and 25 victims being assisted. More than 55 cases have been prosecuted in Howard County Circuit Court on charges related to human trafficking over the last six years.

To win convictions for felony human trafficking, prosecutors must prove the pimp used force, fraud or coercion — a crime punishable by up to 25 years in jail and/or a maximum fine of $15,000. Otherwise, trafficking a person 18 years or older is considered a misdemeanor with a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and/or a $5,000 fine.

In Maryland, laws for punishing traffickers are among the lightest in the country. The state is one of two, with Nebraska, where human trafficking can be charged as a misdemeanor.

Without the first-hand account of victims, who are often unwilling or incapable of testifying, most charges are dropped, state prosecutors say.

"It's not a numbers-driven situation. We work as hard as we can to hold these men accountable. It may sound like we are being weak or we're dropping the ball, but if I had each case, I can say exactly why we did what we did," said Howard County Assistant State's Attorney Colleen McGuinn.

Nine times out of 10, a victim disappears, McGuinn said. If the victim is willing to testify, they often are too emotionally scarred to give convincing and consistent testimony in the face of their accused trafficker.

"The reality is we're dealing with women and girls who are in the lowest of the low in their lives. They've gotten to the point that they're selling their body for sex," McGuinn said.

In most cases, prosecutors have six months to complete a case, a window of time during which victims are rarely ready to testify.

"Our philosophy is child first and victim first and if that means we dismiss a case, then we do," she said.

Howard's two-person unit carefully screens cases that would otherwise go to district court prosecutors who handle 70 cases at a time in order to indict every single case where they can establish probable cause, McGuinn said.

Duffey's victim was one of two over six years who testified in open court, a move that opens up the victim to a jury who may not understand the complexities of human trafficking and defense attorneys who can exploit a victim's sometimes already sullied past.

In that case, the 21-year-old victim's inconsistent testimony was difficult to believe, said McGuinn, who represented the state in the case. An image of her with her trafficker smiling in a Walmart weakened the case, she said.

The victim's past was laid bare in court in 2014. Draper had groomed the victim by exploiting her need for heroin, prosecutors argued.

Draper's attorney noted Draper "didn't put her on this path" and that she had a longstanding history of prostitution and heroin addiction.

"She's not responsible for what she did after she met you," Judge Richard Bernhardt fired back.

The state prosecutor argued Draper used the victim's "earth shattering" addiction to heroin to groom and control her.

Draper pleaded guilty to misdemeanor human trafficking and was sentenced to 10 years.

A human trafficking hub

In court records, pimps cite low crime rates and low chances of being robbed as reasons for being drawn to Howard County for prostitution and sex.

"The irony in that is amazing," McGuinn said.

Geographically, the county is uniquely positioned for human trafficking because of its proximity to the I-95 corridor and airport. The county's affluence suggests there's "more money to be made because there's more money here," said Cpl. Josh Mouton, one of two officers tackling human trafficking cases.

Trafficking in Howard is far removed from stereotypical portrayals in Hollywood where traffickers operate under lock and key, according to a review of court cases.

Human trafficking investigations begin with no clear defined path, local police said. Sometimes, police receive complaints from hotel managers or customers. Other times, investigations begin with drug-related cases.

Without the valuable voice of a victim, local investigations mine cellphone data and other evidence to build a case and speak for the victim.

The inception of Backpage, a website where traffickers often advertise erotic photos and descriptions of services under the "escorts" section, is a blessing and a curse.

The platform allows trafficking to thrive off the web while offering law enforcement with leads, phone numbers, email addresses and, in some cases, erotic pictures of women to advance investigations.

"Every case I've had is somehow related to Backpage. We're on it everyday. It's a home away from home," Mouton said.

Howard police run ads on Backpage too. "Looking for a girl? Howard County Police are looking for you," an ad reads.

Missing links

Riding on the coattails of an ambitious state-led agenda to tackle human trafficking, the Howard County Council voted unanimously to create a task force in 2014.

Then hailed as a forward-thinking move, the task force disbanded after submitting broad recommendations in December 2015.

Using soaring language, the 15-member group identified a pressing need to increase awareness, establish a victim services provider network, expand community outreach and enhance law enforcement's efforts through intelligence sharing and legislation action in 2014.

Currently, local service providers and victim advocates say there's no coordinated process to help victims and to understand the scope of trafficking in Howard County, including the data collection and information-sharing across local entities.

"I look back and I see no major progress," said Jennifer Pollitt Hill, executive director of HopeWorks, the county's sexual assault and domestic violence center. "There's no coordinated conversation between us and the other organizations. We don't know if we are seeing the same people. We're all sort of seeing people in isolation."

Like others heavily invested in the effort, she doesn't even know who to call to ask about the scope of the problem.

"The only way we identify survivors are if they intersect with police, so our knowledge of human trafficking is based solely on the capacity of the police to engage with the community," she said. "They're busy all day every day. They could use 10 more people and they'd still be busy."

The police department recently added a new detective to handle cases. More county-led initiatives are in the works.

Earlier this year, Kittleman created a task force to implement recommendations that have sat dormant since the task force disbanded in 2015. He is also proposing funding to create a full-time position for a human trafficking prevention manager next year.

Howard County Police Chief Gary Gardner said public awareness about human trafficking is key to investigating cases — an issue that he said is clearly a priority for the Kittleman administration.

In the meantime, the task has fallen to HoCo AGAST, which stands for Advocacy Group Against Slavery and Trafficking, a volunteer-run advocacy group that operates on zero revenue.

Volunteers court the approval of local businesses to post fliers that compare human trafficking to modern-day slavery. They sit on court benches during local court deliberations, wearing red to support victims who often are never there.

"It takes years and years for an individual to realize they've been a victim. People just really don't understand what it means to be a victim," said Sara Cochran, who leads the group. "So many people still say it doesn't happen in Howard County. It happens and it happens right here."

No money has yet been spent from a fund Kittleman created in August 2015 to house assets seized during the arrest of individuals involved in human trafficking. As of mid-May, $12,835 has been seized and $1,080 remains in the fund.

If the individual is convicted, half of the money goes to a nonprofit agency to provide support services for victims and the other half for law enforcement.

McGuinn finds no common thread to paint a profile of a trafficker. Most have a disdain for women, but other times, it occurs where it is least expected, she said.

Recently, the trafficker was Arthur Coleman, a Laurel man who pled guilty to human trafficking and prostitution of 13- and 15-year-old girls. He faces a 50-year sentence.

Coleman is the father of five children. He is suspected of trafficking two runaways from Baltimore City. Texts shown in court showed he invited the 13-year-old runaway to be his partner at a freak party where people have open sex.

The girl, who ran away over Christmas, is receiving treatment at a local center — for now.

Her providers hope they can keep her there.

"It's not like these men go to high school and pick the girls that are on honor roll or on their way to college. These are vulnerable women and girls, often, with nowhere else to go. We have a long way to go in understanding what that means," McGuinn said. "Until then, we're trying to hold these people accountable however we can."

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