Ulster County program educates about youth trafficking and provides links to services

Left, Safe Harbour’s Outreach and Prevention Educator Amy Westberg; Right: Jackie Arsenuk, Coordinator of the Ulster County Safe Harbour Program. Center, Michael Iapoce, Commissioner of the County’s Department of Social Services.

A teenaged girl, after placement in a foster home, is befriended on Facebook by a man who pretends to be her age and sympathizes with her problems. He lures her into sending him a nude photo, then blackmails her into having sex with him and his friends by threatening to publicize the picture.

“We are trying to raise awareness that labor and sex trafficking happen in Ulster County,” said Jackie Arsenuk, Coordinator of the Ulster County Safe Harbour Program, now in its fourth year of a five-year grant from New York State Office of Children and Family Services, aimed at preventing and addressing labor and commercial sexual exploitation of youth. Michael Iapoce, Commissioner of the County’s Department of Social Services (DSS), which administers the program through the division of Children and Family Services, said “since 2016, Safe Harbour has received 36 referrals for youth who have been trafficked or are at high risk of being trafficked.” Seven of the youth have met the Federal definition of having been subject to sex trafficking, which includes inducing a person to perform “a commercial sex act…by force, fraud, or coercion.” 

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Arsenuk will be conducting programs in libraries across the county in April and May, giving information on New York’s Safe Harbour Law, at-risk populations, red flags associated with trafficking, the push-and-pull factors that lead youth into trafficking, and how to engage youth in conversations about exploitation and trafficking. The Safe Harbour for Exploited Children Law, passed in 2008, defines a sexually exploited child as any person under 18 years of age who has been subject to sexual exploitation as a result of their loitering for the purposes of prostitution or their engagement in an offer to exchange sexual conduct in return for food, clothing, a place to stay, drugs, or a fee. 

“Some people see this activity as a youth’s choice, and blame them for making poor decisions,” said Arsenuk. “But it’s often the youth with the least amount of choices that find themselves in these situations.”  

“It’s about ensuring that the youth’s basic needs are being met,” said Iapoce, “including food, clothing, medical needs, education, access to a living wage and housing. If those basic needs are not being met, kids are going to be susceptible to exploitation.” 

Trafficking does not necessarily include the use of force or the crossing of a border. “Most cases involve fraud or coercion,” said Arsenuk, “like the offer of a modeling job that turns into stripping or prostitution. Predators use false promises of work, a living situation, a romantic relationship.” Coercion keeps someone in a situation through, for instance, threats of deportation or arrest, threats to family members (“We’ll drag your sister into this”), or withholding legal documents.

A boy is kicked out of his parents’ house when he tell them he is gay. An older man takes him under his wing on the street, then forces him to have sex with other men and serve as a drug courier in exchange for shelter and protection. 

Youth at high risk of trafficking include runaways, homeless youth, and the stigmatized LGTBQ youth population. Youth in the child welfare system are especially vulnerable because many have histories of neglect or physical and sexual abuse. “They don’t understand boundaries or the idea that their bodies are their own,” explained Arsenuk. “They may be running away from abuse in the home with no other alternative than to engage in ‘survival sex’ — exchanging a sex act for something like food, shelter, clothing, drugs, money, or promises of these items. Some youth who have been sexually abused report that it’s empowering to exchange sex for these items, as a way of taking back some sense of control over their bodies. If they’re going to be abused, they feel, at least they’ll get something in return for it.” 

Labor trafficking is also a problem. Youth who enter the country as unaccompanied minors may be subject to debt bondage and can be forced to work at restaurants, factories, and other sites, often intimidated by their employers’ physical or emotional abuse, including threats of arrest and deportation. 

The first line of defense against trafficking is to give youth an understanding of the problem. As Safe Harbour’s Outreach and Prevention Educator, Amy Westberg conducts programs at schools, community centers, and medical facilities, helping kids build skills for healthy relationships. She teaches principles of online safety to deter cyberbullying and delineate the dangers associated with sexting. Youth are helped to develop safety plans, identifying people they can trust and can call in emergency situations. Westberg also explains the warning signs associated with trafficking and how certain decisions and activities can evolve into trafficking situations. “Once they have this information,” said Arsenuk, “Amy provides suggestions about how they might seek help for themselves or approach and advocate for other youth dealing with these issues — for example, what to do if someone appears to be isolated or depressed.” 

“We get feedback from the kids Amy engages,” said Iapoce. “We get their perspectives on these issues and how we can best support them and meet their needs. We hope to inspire peer support programs. They want to help each other, as youth are doing right now on a national level with gun safety. They often reach out to each other online, offering support and encouragement.”

Westberg is also a case manager who works collaboratively with other DSS staff, meeting one-on-one with youth identified as trafficked or at-risk. While it may seem like kids would be wary about accepting advice from an adult, Westberg comes across as empathetic and unpretentious, and it’s easy to picture teens confiding in her. She devotes time to earning her clients’ trust before inquiring about their issues.   

The daughter of a drug-addicted couple has been neglected and shown no affection throughout her childhood. When she’s in her teens, a 20-year-old male pretends he’s romantically interested, then alternately woos and abuses her, threatening to leave her if she doesn’t have sex with men he brings to the house.

New York was the first state in the nation to pass the Safe Harbour Law, which decriminalizes the activities of trafficked youth and diverts them to comprehensive services as opposed to the criminal and juvenile justice systems. “It’s not that youth have just been reckless or promiscuous,” said Iapoce. “They often don’t realize they’re being manipulated and exploited, and the Safe Harbour Law takes this into consideration.” Youth who have been arrested or charged with criminal activity tend to be wary and less likely to be invested in services that might help them. In cases where trafficked minors have been arrested — for instance, when they’ve been coerced into carrying an illegal weapon or dealing drugs — Safe Harbour works to get the charges dismissed.

The program also trains human services providers and law enforcement professionals in how to identify at-risk youth by looking out for red flags such as truancy from school, chronic absenteeism, untreated injuries, or multiple sexually transmitted diseases. Young people who have been trafficked may spend a lot of time with an older adult, have expensive possessions they can’t reasonably afford, or spend excessive time away from home. Many traffickers brand youth with tattoos that symbolize their servitude or imply they are a commodity — a crown, a bar code, dollar signs, the name or initials of the trafficker. 

When training professionals in how to respond to young people in trafficking situations, said Arsenuk, “We use a strength-based approach. We acknowledge they have experienced trauma, while empowering them by giving them the option to participate in creating their own service plan. We discuss trauma-informed care, being non-judgmental, not saying ‘I can’t believe that happened to you!’, because what the youth are really hearing is that you don’t believe them. It’s trauma-informed to say ‘I believe you and it’s not your fault.’ Youth are never referred to as victims or child prostitutes. We see the youth as survivors.” 

By the time state funding for the Safe Harbour Program expires in 2020, Iapoce expects that five years of experience working with staff, service providers, and law enforcement will enable the program to be assimilated in with the department’s other responsibilities. “We see it as an activity that is already under the umbrella of child abuse. As a result of participating in the Safe Harbour Program, trafficking has become another one of the areas we’re screening for and responding to on a regular basis.”

If you suspect a youth is being trafficked, call the Ulster County Crime Victims Assistance Program Hotline at 845-340-3443 or FAMILY of Woodstock Hotline at 845-338-2370. You can also send a text message to 845-679-2485. For more information, call Ulster County Safe Harbour at 845-340-3927or visit their website at http://ulstercountyny.gov/social-services/safe-harbour-program.

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