Connections are being made one woman at a time by offering support and meeting a few basic needs near Atkinson Street in Boston, ground zero of the city’s opioid epidemic. For many women, this is where substance use disorder and human trafficking intersect.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Abigail Judge and peer advocate Sandra Andrade hit the pavement building relationships and trust to help women break the cycle of sexual exploitation.
Judge told the NBC10 Investigators “An open air drug market exists right alongside the commercial sex trade. Women are doing what they need to to survive and that often involves being abused, being brutalized, having to exchange their bodies for things like meals, like fentanyl, etc.”
They’re armed with blankets, clothes, food, wipes and other basics as they walk the streets.
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“The goal is to make a connection with the women, really kind of meet them where they’re at," Andrade said,
It’s all part of the victim-centered approach of human trafficking investigations that includes riding along with Boston Police and the FBI. While law enforcement targets the traffickers working their illegal trade, Judge focuses on the women being sold for sex.
Judge teams up with Boston Police Sgt. Detective Marc Sullivan, who works with the department’s Human Trafficking Unit, and FBI Special Agent Eric Slaton, supervisor of the Boston FBI Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Force. They have all seen the trauma firsthand.
“To have Dr. Judge there, they believe in her and they see the relationship she has with us. It’s an immense value,” said Sullivan.
Slaton told us the recidivism rate is very high.
“We need to build our trust while breaking that relationship they with the traffickers and working with Dr. Judge and the victim services organizations is a key step in doing that.”
Judge said the women ask what nights she’ll be out there because they know someone will be watching out for them.
“I think that’s a very big deal, that this unit has built some level of trust with people who don’t trust anyone,” said Judge.
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At FBI headquarters in Chelsea, emergency bags of clothing are packed for the victims to help them get through the night. Nearby, regional task force members from local police departments help investigate the crimes. And inside the computer forensics lab, they document the evidence and follow the trail of digital evidence left behind.
Data is dumped from hard drives, cell phones are pried apart. They’re just some of the traffickers’ tools used to groom and sell their prey.
“Now with social media and the explosion of apps and communication, different applications, the reach of the trafficker is far and wide. It’s not just the city, it’s every town,” said Special Agent Slaton.
That’s why these partnerships to combat the problem are playing out nationwide from Boston to Georgia, Texas and Colorado. Cases are on the rise. The FBI has seen an almost 200% increase in the number of reported human trafficking commercial sex acts in four years.
“We’ve had victim who’ve traveled across state lines, who have been coerced or induced to hop on a plane to meet a trafficker only to be plied with narcotics or alcohol in efforts to control them,” said Slaton.
Traffickers prey on any vulnerability and often offer to fill a void, promising things like drugs, housing or a relationship. Sullivan said Boston Police have seen girls as young as 12 lured away.
“We’ve seen juvenile minors held, kidnapped, raped, physically beaten, taken out of state.”
The most troubling part for Sullivan is the manipulation of the victims. He said some of the victims think the traffickers are in love with them.
The damage can last a lifetime. Building trust without retraumatizing the victim means meeting them wherever their journey has taken them emotionally and physically, even if it’s inside a tent on a Boston street. “Victim-centered means you have to begin where that person is, help them take another step but it has to be driven by them and that’s why we meet women on the street, said Judge. She’s trying to open a drop in clinic in the area of Mass and Cass to offer more resources to this specific population.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline is available at 1-888-373-7888 or by texting 233733 for help or to report human trafficking. You can also call 1-800-CALLFBI or email tips.fbi.gov.