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Pandemic prosecution limitations are hurting sex trafficking outreach efforts | COMMENTARY

A Prince George's County mother of two and a survivor of human trafficking talks about her experiences a few years ago.
A Prince George's County mother of two and a survivor of human trafficking talks about her experiences a few years ago. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

“Sometimes the girlfriend wants to be out there selling her body, it’s not always the boyfriend — I see it in my neighborhood.”

That was the observation of my organization’s newest street outreach associate, Rome, as we discussed sex trafficking in our city of Baltimore. He was telling me that he is seeing with his own eyes sex trafficking, under the guise of a romantic relationship.

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My response? “Boyfriends who love their girlfriends don’t turn them out to have sex with other men.” But sadly, a significant number of women, or often young girls and teenagers, see their trafficker as their “boyfriend.”

The decision by Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, because of COVID-19, to stop prosecuting crimes that “pose no threat” to the community puts such women, girls and teenagers in great peril. What could be sex trafficking that often mimics street level prostitution is not being prosecuted — if the police do not have probable cause to approach them, they can’t confirm what is actually happening — leaving young women at higher risk. Ms. Mosby’s policy choices put more girls, women and boys in danger.

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Many women I’ve supported may look like a prostitute — but the truth is that they are often screaming for help from the inside, as they try to survive on the streets.

My nonprofit, the HER Resiliency Center (HER), has led a street outreach team in Washington, D.C., for more than three years, and has been doing the same work in Baltimore for the past year. Our approach is to go into the community and talk to everyone.

Why everyone? The fact is we can’t know who the gatekeepers are otherwise, and who can help identify those in need of help. We shouldn’t stigmatize the women or worse, place them in danger by talking too long, but talk to them, we must.

At the start of the pandemic, I went out with my team to do street outreach. A local official commented to me at the time that I wasn’t being “safe.” This official went on to run through my own personal story of prostitution, drug and alcohol addiction, and homelessness. He said “look at you now and all you’ve overcome”

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“That is exactly why street outreach does not stop in a pandemic,” I replied. The need now is greater.

Failing to address sex trafficking on our streets also leaves many engaging in sex work who may want to exit the life with little or no alternatives. Through HER, I’ve worked with the Baltimore Police Department’s sex trafficking unit behind the scenes. They have been trained in trauma, and have learned how to support the individuals being trafficked and those who want out of the life of prostitution. My small organization can’t do it alone, the police department, however imperfect, has been my behind the scenes partner. The state’s attorney is hindering us.

Sex traffickers and johns are becoming increasingly violent. We see it while doing outreach — the young women are looking more and more “rough” and many have more bruises.

Who will intercede for them?

I’m reminded of the young woman I was asked to speak with at the police department last week. She had been arrested for a charge unrelated to what looked to be prostitution. However, we learned that she was being sex trafficked. We also learned that she is an active drug user and pregnant. This is a woman who was in need of support and safety for herself and her unborn baby. Had she not caught another charge, we might never have reached her — and she might not have been able to try something different.

We must find a way to provide prevention in a holistic way that prevents vulnerable youth from being trafficked. We’d welcome the state’s attorney to join the fight.

Natasha Guynes (natashaguynes@gmail.com) sits on the Baltimore Human Trafficking Collaborative and the D.C. Sex Trafficking Taskforce. She is the founder and president of HER Resiliency Center.

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