It’s tempting to look at human trafficking as its own problem, and in Maine a low-priority one at that.

It’s more accurate, however, to look at the crime as one of the final, worst-case result when children are caught in appalling circumstances and given too little support as they grow into adults.

That aligns human trafficking with a number of the state’s most pressing problems, including opiate addiction, and calls for comprehensive solutions that target the larger causes, even as law enforcement and social service providers work on innovative ways to attack this particular symptom.

VICTIMS AS VICTIMS

In the latter case, Maine has made significant progress. People forced or manipulated into prostitution now are largely seen as victims, and law enforcement largely has made its targets the “johns” who create demand for prostitution and the criminals who earn money from it.

There is still room to spread that attitude, and police need the additional training and resources that it takes to deal with these complicated cases, which involve exploited women who are not used to trusting law enforcement, and who have complex feelings toward the people exploiting them.

To that end, police, victim advocates and service providers are building regional teams that allow for a systemic response to cases of sex trafficking. Portland has had such a team for six years, buoyed by a federal grant and featuring a full-time case manager, and it is spreading what it has learned through experience to nascent teams in Augusta-Waterville, Bangor and Lewiston-Auburn.

Providing these teams with the resources they need is one of the recommendations in a December report, the Maine Human Trafficking Needs Assessment, prepared for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

PEOPLE ON THE MARGINS

But the report also makes it clear that stopping the damage caused by sex trafficking will take early intervention and prevention.

Sex traffickers target women on the margins — the homeless and those living in extreme poverty, products of dysfunctional and abusive families, the mentally ill, and others in similar circumstances.

People end up on the margins because of exposure to trauma, illness, and privation that starts in their youth and continues unimpeded through to adulthood, leading to a series of problems related to addiction, hunger and mental health.

Effective interventions in communities, schools, the doctor’s office and the justice system can help keep people off the edges of society, saving lives and money in the process.

That is yet another call for strong anti-poverty programs that provide nutrition, shelter and health care, and which help alleviate so many more problems than just sex trafficking.

EARLY INTERVENTION

It’s also necessary to intervene early in the lives of children experiencing abuse.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has made this a priority, establishing children advocacy centers, teams of law enforcement, social workers and prosecutors who collaborate on investigations into child abuse, help allocate resources and services, and provide support to nonoffending caregivers.

Catching problems early, and letting child victims know that there are adults and institutions they can trust, is crucial to ending cycles of dysfunction and abuse.

DHHS should be lauded for this effort, which when combined with early childhood lessons on healthy relationships, and personal well-being and autonomy can help catch abuse at its start or prevent it from happening altogether.

It’s a positive and welcome development that law enforcement is changing how it approaches sex trafficking. That will make a huge difference in the lives of victims of the awful crime.

But by focusing on the well-being of children and teens, we can keep some of those people from becoming victims at all.

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