Intensifying efforts to combat human trafficking, authorities Wednesday announced a new task force - funded by a $1.3 million federal grant - to sharpen the focus on "a wretched crime" that makes sex slaves of vulnerable adults and children.
"It's a global problem with local impact," Homeland Security Investigations deputy special agent in charge Brian Michael said at a news conference describing the effort.
"The big issue here is to detect it. We know it's out there, and we're tired of just stumbling upon it," said James Carpenter, head of the family violence and sexual assault unit in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.
Carpenter cited the case of Linda Weston, serving life in prison for forcing into prostitution or imprisoning in her Tacony basement mentally ill victims so she could steal their benefits.
Other task force members include acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Louis Lappen; FBI special agent in charge Michael Harpster; Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross; and Lt. Col. Stephen Banfield, divisional commander of the Salvation Army for eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware.
The Salvation Army is active in providing shelter and social services for victims when they try to escape the sway of their abusers.
Working with the Philadelphia police Special Victims Unit, the Salvation Army was instrumental in obtaining funds from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Office of Victims of Crime to be spread over three years.
Michael, the Homeland Security agent, said undocumented immigrants who are trafficked and later cooperate in the prosecution of their abusers can be eligible for special protection from deportation.
"It allows them work authorization. It allows them ... other forms of immigration relief," including T visas, which can put them on a track for permanent legal residency.
But the police commissioner warned against the "mistaken belief" that trafficking "only happens with foreign-born people." Ross also highlighted the complex phenomenon of victimization - especially when combined with drug addiction.
"What we have seen in many instances is that a lot of adult victims who are in the sex trade no longer even view themselves as victims, but they are," he said. "That's exactly what they are. They've been subjugated for so long that many don't even perceive themselves that way."