Erie County’s Safe Harbor Plan focuses on exploited children

BUFFALO – Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz announced that the Erie County Department of Social Services will receive $124,444 of grant money from the New York State Office of Children & Family Services to address the needs of sexually exploited children in the county through a partnership with the International Institute of Buffalo, an organization whose Victim Services Department has been the primary provider for victims of human trafficking in Western New York since 2006.

“Human trafficking and sexual exploitation are crimes that rob children of their youth and carry devastating impacts far into the future,” Poloncarz said. “While people may think that such heinous acts aren’t happening here, the sad truth is that they are, and their destructive cycle must be stopped. Thanks to the Office of Children & Family Services, and working with our partners at the International Institute, we will be increasing awareness of this problem and addressing it in a robust way.”

A 2006 study identified the following demographic trends among sexually exploited children (under the age of 18) in Erie County: 77 percent are female; 64 percent are under the age of 16; and 47 percent are white, while 32 percent are African-American and 10 percent are Hispanic. Additionally, the study revealed that law enforcement, social service agencies, the justice system, and the public are not adequately aware of the exploitation problem, or what to do about it; that there is a need for training on how to identify and best serve children who are victims of exploitation; and that there is a lack of appropriate services in Erie County that specifically address the needs of sexually exploited children.

“This grant allows us, in collaboration with our community partners, to build a system that responds appropriately and effectively to child victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking,” added Social Services Commissioner Carol Dankert. “Regrettably, many trafficking victims end up in the juvenile justice system. By providing training to raise awareness and to enhance our ability to identify victims, we hope to interrupt the cycle of arrest, detention, and abuse for these child victims.”

Research shows that 89 percent of sexually exploited children have had previous involvement with the Child Welfare System, and that many have also been involved in the Juvenile Justice System. In order to facilitate earlier identification of children at risk of exploitation, Erie County will target children at the point of entry into these systems and follow them until they reach the age of 18.

Additionally, while the majority of sexually exploited children are female, the county’s plan will not limit services to females alone; partnering with the IIB will allow equal access to services for all victims of youth sexual exploitation, regardless of gender, sexual identity or orientation, race, nationality, or English language proficiency.

As co-facilitators of the Western District of New York’s Human Trafficking Task Force, IIB has worked with over 300 survivors of human trafficking since 2006, many of whom are minors victimized through both sexual and labor exploitation. “The diversity of these cases is astounding,” said Amy Fleischauer, IIB Director of Victim Services. “Survivors have escaped from farms, car washes, homes of diplomats and international notables, massage parlors, state fairs, brothels, and restaurants. They have been trafficked to the most rural corners of Western New York, downtown Buffalo, tourist areas of Niagara Falls, or held temporarily in suburban businesses as they were shuttled from Toronto to New York City. This funding will allow new collaborative efforts toward increasing the identification of those enslaved by traffickers and ensuring that these survivors get the support and assistance they need to begin their process of recovery.”

Service components of the County’s Safe Harbor Plan, coordinated with the International Institute, include:

A community awareness campaign involving posting information on the County’s website; the launch of a community awareness event to focus media attention on the issue, and a follow up campaign to place educational materials about sexual exploitation in public locations; and the creation and facilitation of a sub-committee of the already-existing Western District of New York’s Human Trafficking Task Force that will meet quarterly;

Training and identification, facilitated by the International Institute in conjunction with the International Organization for Adolescents, will provide focused training opportunities to both government and community agencies on how to identify and assess potential victims of exploitation. Erie County will use the assessment tools available to identify victims of sexual exploitation as they become involved in the Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice systems;

Safe, appropriate housing for victims will be provided while their situations are being evaluated; Erie County will capitalize on existing relationships with youth homeless shelters to provide such housing, which can be family-focused if returning to the family will assist the youth in escaping the exploitive situation they are in;

Case management will involve assessing each child and linking them to needed services; as an agency with expertise in youth trafficking, the International Institute will provide case management services to ensure comprehensive service provision including safe shelter and education on rights; and

Advocacy with the legal system, which will assist victims as they encounter law enforcement, the Juvenile Justice system, the District Attorney’s office or other prosecutors, and the court system.