When Sara Cochran, Deadra Atkins and other members of Howard County Agast talk about human trafficking at public lectures and events, they often tell the anecdote of a girl picked up by a suspected human trafficker near a typical American mall.
The suspected trafficker picked up the unassuming girl under the guise of a modeling scout, as the story goes. But at some point during the car ride, the girl felt uncomfortable and at a stop light, she opened the car door and ran to safety.
While an alarming story in and of itself, it becomes exponentially more meaningful when the group reveals the mall was Howard County's very own The Mall in Columbia.
"Our children are at risk," said Cochran, who founded the citizen-run volunteer organization with Atkins in 2011.
Cochran and Atkins heard the story from Denene Yates, founder and director of Safe House of Hope in Baltimore, a group dedicated to the rehabilitation of prostitutes.
The incident was never reported to police largely because the girl never realized she was a potential victim of human trafficking. Howard County Agast hopes to change that.
The organization, which stands for Howard County Advocacy Group Against Slavery and Trafficking, is focused on raising awareness about human trafficking in Howard and surrounding counties. Human trafficking is defined as a form of modern-day slavery where people profit from the control and exploitation of others, according to the Polaris Project — a national anti-slavery organization founded in 2002.
"One of the misconceptions is that trafficking is happening in another country. And if it is happening in the U.S., that it is brought here from overseas," said Megan Fowler, director of communications for Polaris.
"We hear everyday that trafficking, both sex and labor, is thriving in the United States."
That "thriving" industry took a hit over the weekend, when the FBI announced Monday, July 29, that police had arrested 150 alleged pimps and other individuals and rescued more than 100 children in a nationwide sex trafficking sting.
Worldwide, more people are trafficked for labor than sex, according to Polaris, and although a breakdown of trafficking in the United States has not been researched, sex trafficking is perceived as more prevalent.
While Polaris and local organizations, like the Maryland Rescue and Restore Coalition, know trafficking is occurring in the United States, exact data numbers are not readily available, making it hard to track the crime over state borders, let alone county lines.
Polaris currently ranks Maryland's laws against human trafficking in its second tier, which means it is better than most but leaves room for improvement. According to Shared Hope International, another national organization battling sex trafficking, Maryland's rating is a D.
Polaris received 80 calls from Maryland to their human trafficking hotline reporting instances with moderate signs of trafficking in 2012. And while that data is useful, it's far from a complete picture.
"One of the main problems is we don't have a lot of state level data," said Danielle Lohan, community partners liaison with the Maryland Coalition.
"It's huge in Maryland," said Nicholas Weikel, a member of Howard County Agast. According to Weikel, Howard County is a particularly high-risk region for sex trafficking because of its proximity to two major cities, Interstate 95, Baltimore/Washington International Airport, Maryland Live Casino, and the discrepancy of wealth and poverty.
"We are in the perfect storm," he said.
Weikel and experts from the Maryland Coalition and Polaris said the instant gratification and thrill-seeking culture perpetuated by casinos and red light districts are havens for sex trafficking, while proximity to transportation venues allow traffickers to move their business before police can pick up the scent.
Howard County Police have stepped up efforts to control and deter prostitution, including human trafficking.
"(Human trafficking) is a priority," said Lt. Glenn Case, commander of Howard Police's Vice ands Narcotics Division. "It is a serious crime that the Police Department will not tolerate."
A sting operation by county police in June was conducted to "seek out victims of sex trafficking," said police in a news release.
"We know that many women are brought from state to state for the purposes of prostitution," said Police Chief Bill McMahon in a statement announcing the arrests of four prostitutes. "If we can bring some of these women into our custody, maybe we have a chance of helping them break free from this lifestyle and the men who often control it."
The arrests coincided with what Case believes is the first conviction of human trafficking in Howard County Circuit Court. Rowland James Duffey, 32, of Frederick, was convicted of human trafficking and other charges in June in connection with an August 2012 incident. According to the charging documents, Duffey picked up a girl in West Paris, Maine, and transported her against her will to Maryland to be used as a prostitute.
Duffey, who was operating out of an Extended Stay America hotel on Route 175 in Columbia, allegedly used an undisclosed website to solicit prostitution, and was arrested after the victim was able to admit herself to a hospital and call police.
Duffey, who is incarcerated in Jessup, is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 23.
Case would not say if the Duffey arrest led police to expand its human trafficking initiatives, but added that their approach has changed.
"We've always worked prostitution-related investigations," he said. "We wanted to try a new method in order to enforce prostitution laws, arrest prostitutes and, at the same time, attempt to identify and help women being forced into his lifestyle. Another goal is to identify their 'pimps' or traffickers at the same time, and take enforcement action if possible."
In addition to two prostitution stings resulting in the arrest of 29 "johns" or men soliciting prostitution, Case said police are actively investigating massage parlors in the county that "may engage in suspected prostitution activity.
"Although these investigations in the past have not resulted in human trafficking charges, it's always a possibility that we'll uncover it," he said. "We do try to interview the women working in these establishments about human trafficking."
For Cochran and Howard County Agast, the fact that a distinction between human trafficking and prostitution is being drawn by local police is a sign of progress.
"One of the things police need to be better trained about is how to recognize human trafficking. It looks like prostitution on the surface, but usually it's human trafficking."
And that distinction starts with awareness.
"The end of human trafficking begins with awareness," she said. "Awareness is our No. 1 focus."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun