Rhode Island law enforcement officials have seen a big jump in sex trafficking charges filed over the past year as they have begun working with federal agencies and local victim advocacy groups to target the perpetrators - and help the underage victims - in a trend they say is incredibly troubling.
Suspecting the handful of cases they were seeing each year were not isolated incidents, United States Attorney Peter Neronha said state and local law enforcement officials decided to ramp up their investigations into suspected sex trafficking operations.
"As we've seen a case or two, we've started to dig deeper and look harder, and we've uncovered much more," Neronha said. "It really has been startling."
Neronha said his office is now meeting three or four times per week on sex trafficking cases or issues, and there's "no question" there's been an uptick in cases in the five years since he took office. The office of Attorney General Peter Kilmartin has seen an increase as well, from one case in 2013 to nine cases in 2014, said spokeswoman Amy Kempe. There are currently several cases outstanding.
"It's not human trafficking like container cars of women. It's one or two girls at a time being brought to Rhode Island or found in Rhode Island by someone they connect with, sometimes it's a friend of a boyfriend. We've been seeing a lot of that," Neronha said.
Peg Langhammer, executive director at Day One Sexual Assault and Trauma Center, said there are about 30 sex trafficking victims - some as young as 12 years old - currently receiving services from the center, the only one of its kind in Rhode Island.
"Day One has been working on this issue for several years, and what we have seen is up until the past year and a half ago, there was a very fragmented approach in Rhode Island to dealing with these cases," Langhammer said. "About a year and a half ago, we pulled together a statewide task force on sex trafficking."
Langhammer said the task force is a collaborative effort between federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, the State Police, Neronha's office, Kilmartin's office and victim advocacy groups like Day One.
"One of the goals of the task force is to do tracking of these cases in Rhode Island," Langhammer said, noting there wasn't an accurate accounting for cases until recently, when efforts to solve the problem became more coordinated.
It also has the attention of lawmakers: a bill that would increase the penalties for those convicted of sex trafficking or obstructing sex trafficking investigations was unanimously passed April 2 by the state House of Representatives. The bill now heads to the state Senate.
While no state is immune to sex trafficking, Rhode Island might be particularly enticing for perpetrators because of its "sex industry," said Audrey Morrissey, associate director of My Life My Choice, a Boston-based advocacy group for sex assault victims.
"Gambling, getting girls, that whole scene goes hand in hand," Morrissey said, pointing to Rhode Island's casinos and strip clubs as a draw for sex traffickers.
And people might be surprised to learn that sex trafficking is going on in their community, Morrissey said, as the popularity of the Internet has allowed pimps to advertise girls online rather than on the street corner.
Neronha said law enforcement has been paying particular attention to classified advertising website backpage.com, which has become infamous for being an online marketplace for sex.
Just last week, the Providence police arrested 22 men who had responded to fake ads for escorts on the website.