ATLANTIC CITY — In 2015 and 2016, in the midst of two programs meant to crack down on prostitution in the area of New Jersey's gambling capital, Volunteers of America Delaware Valley identified a significant portion of the women involved in the practice as victims of human trafficking.

After pursuing additional funding through the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, VOADV has now launched the Atlantic City Human Trafficking Pilot, to help cut off this crime and rehabilitate those affected in a variety of ways.

"With the six victims that we've served through the pilot so far, I can tell you the backgrounds and the trauma is very, very different for each one," Amanda Leese, VOADV senior vice president of reentry and navigator services, said.

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Complicating the process, tracking a trafficker, capturing them, and bringing them to justice can be a yearslong endeavor, and is not guaranteed to be safe for law enforcement.

So the pilot program is designed to take prosecutors largely off the streets, with VOADV acting as a liaison and maintaining a safe haven site for victims at an undisclosed location in Atlantic County, according to Leese.

"These types of programs have much smaller numbers as far as who they serve, but each individual requires a significant amount of services," she said. "We can also be on site as needed when there is an operation that takes place, so that we can make sure that victims have immediate services, and the opportunity to talk to one of our human trafficking specialists."

Multiple agencies are assisting the effort: the New Jersey State Police, Office of the Attorney General, Atlantic City Police Department, Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City, and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

"We're all working together, and what's coming out of it is pretty incredible, and it's our best chance to really serve these women and then prosecute the traffickers," Leese said.

It was the national group's work with the Pine Hill Police Department, in Camden County, that led that jurisdiction to get involved as well.

As human trafficking victims are all too often minors, a significant decrease in missing youth over a 10-year period in Pine Hill has been seen as a beacon of hope.

In fact, Leese said, conversations about the vulnerabilities and dangers children may face with regard to human trafficking can begin as young as age 7 or 8.

Leese feels that replicating the Atlantic City Human Trafficking Pilot is "definitely doable" in other parts of the Garden State, although for now, the concentration is primarily on this area. But a summit to be held April 7 in the resort town could provide answers on how to eventually broaden services and expand their reach.

Patrick Lavery is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com

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