Advocates for homeless teenagers in Portland say that one in five reports being sexually exploited, often trading sex for somewhere to sleep or for drugs.
“We don’t have the same sex pimp industry a much bigger city has, but we have dealt with it,” said Jon Bradley, associate director for Preble Street, a social services agency that operates a teen shelter. “I think there’s an awareness this is a big issue everywhere. I don’t think it’s surprising something like this would be happening in Maine.”
Child sex trafficking in Maine is in the spotlight after a national FBI crackdown on the trade turned up three victims in Maine, the only victims identified in a three-day sweep by agents attached to the Boston field office, the agency said Monday. Nationally, there were 105 victims identified and 159 pimps charged in the operation.
An FBI spokesman would not say which Maine police agency uncovered the case or any other specifics because it remains an active investigation.
Taryn Offenbacher, spokeswoman for the Vancouver, Wash.-based Shared Hope International, said the FBI national roundup helps even if most sex trafficking investigations and prosecutions are local.
“A lot of people in America still don’t know this is happening,” she said. “When they do something of this magnitude, it allows it to be a more newsworthy topic, keeps it in the headlines.”
Maine has taken steps to address what advocates say is a growing problem with sex trafficking. This month, Gov. Paul LePage signed into law a bill sponsored by Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, that increases the penalties for repeat offenders and for those who sexually exploit people with mental disabilities or immigrants by withholding their passports. It also identifies such conduct as sex trafficking rather than promotion of prostitution to more accurately describe it.
Portland police Sgt. Tim Farris, co-chairman of the Greater Portland Coalition Against Sex Trafficking & Exploitation, said that while not numerous, there are cases of children being trafficked for sex in Maine. Sometimes they are reported as domestic violence or sexual assault cases.
The Department of Justice estimates that the most frequent age at which someone enters the commercial sex industry in the U.S. is 12 to 14 years old, according to the coalition website.
“People who are younger are much more pliable,” said Farris.
Most already have been victims of sexual violence and often lack a healthy support structure. When a man offers them companionship, sometimes dating them and taking them out to dinner, they are enthralled by the attention, Farris said.
If the girl, or in some cases a boy, doesn’t perform sex acts for money, the victim is subjected to physical abuse.
“They (pimps) stroke them with one hand and beat them with the other hand,” Farris said. Similar to domestic abuse, the pimps keep the victims isolated from family and friends, he said. They also keep them medicated with illegal drugs as a way to ensure their control, he said.
Sex traffickers are often drug dealers, with little regard for other people. Unlike drugs, which carry a very high risk, prostitution is relatively low risk for the pimp and the same product can be sold over and over again, Farris said.
Bradley said the problem of addiction has a direct bearing on the sex trafficking problem.
“A lot of places (nationally) see less (prostitution) related to addiction but we see more related to addiction and that becomes the coercion,” he said. “We’ve been struggling with this for the last two years.”
The region needs housing and counseling to help sex trafficking victims, local advocates say.
It’s a national need as well, according to Offenbacher.
“There’s a lot of trauma bonding during the period of exploitation,” Offenbacher said, referring to a victim’s relationship to an abuser. “It’s not like you can just pluck them out of a situation and put them back in society and say, ‘Live as if that had never happened.”‘
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David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: