Experts say human trafficking prevalent in Capital Region
By Rebecca Carballo
Published 3:26 pm EDT, Saturday, September 21, 2019

ALBANY — Often human trafficking is associated with distant countries. But it happens right in the Capital Region to people who are new to the area and those who’ve lived here all their lives, law enforcement, lawyers and even a human trafficking survivor and other experts said Saturday.

When it comes to human trafficking, one may conjure the image of foreign girls and massage parlors. In terms of labor trafficking the thought of immigrant men on farms may come to mind, attorney Mary Armistead told an audience at the conference “Trapped in Our Own Backyard: A Symposium on Human Trafficking and Story of Survival,” at Sophia Greek Orthodox church in Albany.

But it’s not always like that, Armistead said. Both labor and sex trafficking are occurring in this region in unexpected ways.

“We’re not talking about individuals being beaten in order to work,”Armistead said. “We’re talking about psychological coercion.”

For instance, one of her clients was a young woman from Jamaica, who came to the U.S. on a student visa in hopes of a better education. She was living with her aunt with the understanding of doing some housework and babysitting.

Eventually, the workload increased to the point where her aunt told her to stop going to school, Armistead said. This could mean losing her visa. When the woman said she didn’t want to stop attending school to work, her aunt threatened to tell her family back in Jamaica that she failed out of school and was addicted to drugs.

“She never feared her aunt was going to hit her or cause physical harm, but that reputational harm was so significant for her based on her culture and her background, that she continued doing that work she didn’t want to do,” Armistead said.

However, it’s not just immigrants who are vulnerable to trafficking. It can happen domestically, too. This was the case for Salka Valerio who ran away from her home in Virginia when she was 14 to New York to live with a friend’s aunt and uncle.The uncle turned out to be a pimp, she said.

She then spent two years being trafficked being passed from pimp to pimp in downstate New York.

Valerio saw no other alternative, though. She felt trapped at her home in Virginia, where she said she had to endure physical abuse. Although child protective services made several visits, no action was taken.

“The house was clean, and there was food in the pantry,” Valerio said. “I just fell through the cracks.”

Valerio would “fall through the cracks” time and time again. During a doctor’s visit one of her pimps accompanied her and spoke for her the entire time. He wouldn’t let her be alone with a medical professional.

Several of the experts at the panel said instances like that are a red flag. They also said traffickers prey upon women in vulnerable situations, those like Valerio, who didn’t have safe home to return to.

Valerio eventually made it out. One of her client’s mothers brought her to a shelter and she eventually went on to college. Now, she works for the Crime Victims Assistance Center in Binghamton. She works with teens who experience or are at high risk for exploitation and abuse. She helps them spot red flags so they can protect themselves from experiences like the ones she’s had.

She said being able to identify signs of trafficking can be life changing for some youth.
“If I had this information in middle school, I probably would have never been trafficked,” Valerio said.