TRENTON – The Assembly homeland security committee kicked off the new legislative session with a hearing Monday looking at the issue of human trafficking – predominantly sex crimes, mostly victimizing women and girls, often from vulnerable and minority populations.

Assistant Attorney General Annmarie Taggart, the chairwoman of the state’s Human Trafficking Task Force, said this past year, the State Police launched their Missing Persons & Human Trafficking Unit. She said the pairing will help it better detect trends and strategies.

“This is the first time these two types of investigative units have aligned,” Taggart said.

Prevent, not just prosecute

Taggart says human trafficking goes largely undetected, so there isn’t good data about its prevalence in New Jersey. She said there have been around 100 federal, state and county prosecutions in the last five years.

“Which I think to some may seem like that’s too small of a number,” Taggart said. “To me, it seems like a huge sea change.”

Gina Hernandez, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse New Jersey, told lawmakers that rescuing victims is commendable and needed – but often too late to avoid the risks of depression, drugs and marital and employment issues down the road.

“The research shows that once a young person is caught up in sex trafficking, which on average starts around ages 12 to 14 years old, their lives are changed forever,” Hernandez said.

Advocates told lawmakers it’s important for the system to treat young people as victims, not saddle them with charges for prostitution, fighting and so forth that can compound their challenges.

Made worse during COVID era

Dawne Lomangino-DiMauro, director of Statewide Human Trafficking Services for the social services agency Avanzar, said the problem, like many others in society, has worsened during the nearly two years of the pandemic.

“We have a lot of youth that have been in noncontact with others, that are isolated, that have absolutely been lured in,” she said. “We are seeing more internet luring, too, right now because of COVID.”

Lomangino-DiMauro said there has been an uptick in the last year of undocumented youth being brought into the country with an older boyfriend or husband who are pregnant or soon become pregnant.

And she said the issue of ‘child brides’ is still treated as a cultural issue, not a human-rights one, and goes unprosecuted despite a 2018 state law that prohibits anyone under age 18 from marrying. She said of 15 cases she’s aware of from the last year and a half, the man involved has been charged only once.

Labor trafficking, too

While human trafficking is often described in terms of sex trafficking, it can also involve forced labor.

Kate Lee, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking, said labor trafficking is tough to spot but there are signs – such as in a nail salon if all the workers come from the same place, or maybe arrive together in group transportation.

“And they don’t necessarily share very much about their own background. Perhaps they seem like they’re working excessive hours,” Lee said. “Things like these, these could potentially be red flags.”

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Lee says it could happen most anywhere – at gas stations, restaurants, landscaping companies.

“Labor trafficking is also a huge issue, as I think we probably are aware now, in our state,” she said.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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