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Conference puts a spotlight on human trafficking in Maryland

For all of her life Jen Spry kept buried a deep, dark secret — that at age 8 a neighbor routinely forced her to have sex with strange men and created pornography of her and other children who lived nearby.

The abuse by the man who first befriended her with gifts of toys and money lasted two years. Spry's mom, who died a few years ago, never knew what had happened to her daughter.

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But Spry, 41, no longer suffers in silence, and Saturday she shared her story with a roomful at the Maryland Freedom Conference, held at Towson University as a way to draw attention to human trafficking in the state.

The conference targeted average citizens, instead of most human trafficking events in the state, which have been directed toward law enforcement, social workers and others who work directly with the issue. Organizers of Saturday's event wanted to teach members of the community how to recognize potential human trafficking cases.

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"Without the community, nobody is the eyes and ears out there," said Bella Santos Owens, president of the Baltimore County Commission for Women, one of the organizers of the event.

More attention has been paid to human trafficking in Maryland since 2007, when the General Assembly beefed up laws and a state task was formed to help identify and rescue victims and prosecute perpetrators.

Because it is a largely hidden epidemic, it is unclear how many victims exist. Members of the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force victim service subcommittee assisted 217 victims of trafficking in 2013, according to the group's website. Federal law enforcement officers who work with the group have arrested 94 human traffickers since January 2013, and there have been 23 federal trafficking prosecutions since then.

Maryland is a hot spot for trafficking because of its central eastern location and access to interstate highways. It is also close to airports and U.S. embassies and is popular with tourists. It is not uncommon for people to set up sex rings targeted at big events like football games and concerts.

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"When people are coming into town, sex traffickers are too," said Aaliyah Muhammad, co-chair of the public awareness committee of the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force.

Advocates believe they could get even more prosecutions if they could teach the community to help identify more cases.

At the conference they gave tips on what to look for. Possible signs of human trafficking include a person who seems to be afraid of a boss or relative they are living with or who doesn't have identification and never seems to have money. Another sign is a boss or relative who seems to control when someone comes and goes.

Advocates say citizens should not try to rescue someone they think is a victim, because of safety concerns. Instead, they can call a hotline and report their suspicions at 888-373-7888, or text 233733.

Spry's attacker first approached her to help find a "lost dog." Soon he was bringing her toys that she would hide from her mother. Finally one day, he asked if he could take a picture of her. She felt obligated because he had given her so much. The photo would be used as an advertisement for men who would later have sex with her.

Once the man began trafficking her, he threatened Spry so she would not tell. He said he would kill her mother or take her somewhere and abandon her. The acts happened after school and she would be home by dinner so that her mother never suspected.

The abuse ended when the man suddenly moved away.

Spry decided to come forward with her story after a fire at her home. It reminded her that life was short and she need not suffer with her past. She received intense counseling and decided to share her story with others.

She hopes speaking out will make people more aware so that she can help save other children. It may have worked. People who heard her speak came up to her throughout the conference saying how touched they were.

"I can be a voice for the children because that was once me," she said.

Twitter.com/ankwalker

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