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Anti-human trafficking collaboration receives $1.5 million to counter growing problem


January marks National Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and a local entity formed in 2006 to combat it is receiving a $1.5 million grant to further its efforts.

Partners in the Western District of New York Human Trafficking Task Force will use the money to identify and support its survivors, while investigating and prosecuting the traffickers.

“Trafficking is much more common than many realize,” said Congressman Brian Higgins, who announced the federal grant. “In 2020, 11,000 cases of trafficking were identified in the United States. We’re making real progress, but there still is much more to be done, to find traffickers and to identify incidences of trafficking.”

According to the task force, human trafficking investigations in the Western District increased from 70 to 110 between 2018 and 2020, and the number of victims served increased from 203 to 328.

Jenny Rizzo-Choi, interim executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo, says that entity has provided case management for approximately 1,800 survivors since 2006.

“Those services include securing emergency and permanent long term housing, providing language, accessing multiple different languages, offering transportation assistance, securing medical and dental facilities, enrolling survivors in mental health services and substance abuse treatment, and advocating for our clients who are in the criminal justice system,” said Rizzo-Choi.

A majority of victims, about 75%, are U.S. citizens and the ages range from children to seniors. They are trafficked, according to prosecutors, not just for the criminal sex trade, but also for labor.

Task force members say what they have not seen are abductions from store parking lots, but there are many warning signs that an individual, youth or adult, may be caught up in human trafficking.

“We're looking at truancy, children are not going to school, they have an older boyfriend or girlfriend or significantly older boyfriend or girlfriend, money in their pocket that they shouldn't have, or gifts or items that are things that just don't make sense,” said Mary Cosgrove Moran, the Task Force coordinator, about the warning signs involving children.

And as for possible cases involving adults? They include substance abuse and also verbal, psychological or physical abuse. Cosgrove Moran notes that often times there’s an intersection of domestic violence and human trafficking. There are also many vulnerabilities that traffickers will seek to take advantage of their victims.

“The vulnerabilities that can be exploited obviously include immigration issues, if someone does not have documents, or as well as disabilities,” she continued. “Poverty is a big thing. Our poverty rate here is 4% above the national average. Gender identity, sexual orientation, those are all kinds of things that are red flags that we're looking for.”

Erie County Sheriff John Garcia says his office, one of the task force’s partners, is rolling out two programs. One conducts screenings early in the corrections process to identify trafficking victims. The other is designed to educate people on recognizing the warning signs.

“This program would utilize our school resource officers, and they will in turn educate our students about signs to look for and how to prevent human trafficking,” Garcia said. “In addition to these programs, I'm announcing that my office is expanding its intel gathering abilities by using our commercial vehicle enforcement unit, or domestic violence unit, or narcotics Intel unit, and this is all to look for indicators of human trafficking.”

Participants in Tuesday’s announcement also shared the National Human Trafficking Hotline number, (888) 373-7888.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.