September-October 2015

Human Trafficking in Montgomery County

Trafficking is happening here--in massage parlors, nice hotels, even a town house in Rockville

But while there have been scattered cases of sex trafficking and prostitution involving minors in the county—in 2013, McCarthy’s office successfully prosecuted a case in which the mother of a 14-year-old made the minor available for sex to pay off a debt—Penrod says he occasionally finds himself at odds with advocacy groups that urge him to make the trafficking of juveniles his top enforcement priority.

“We might find one juvenile [case] a year, if we’re lucky,” he says. Penrod, whose eight-person vice and intelligence unit includes three people who focus on sex trafficking, says he often tells advocacy groups: “I can’t have a unit if [juvenile sex trafficking] is what we’re going to deal with, because it’s almost nonexistent in the county.”

Why so few local juvenile cases? Law enforcement officials suggest that the stiff penalties tied to trafficking minors have been a deterrent. Mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in federal cases range from 10 to 15 years in prison for sex trafficking involving minors, a crime that was made a felony under state law in 2007.

During the final year of her self-described ordeal, Mwaka lived in an upscale town house in Rockville, less than three-quarters of a mile from the Montgomery County Courthouse

Several victims’ advocates acknowledge that Penrod has a point, and that a public focus on the issue of juvenile sex trafficking has drawn attention and resources away from adult victims. “Forced labor is the invisible and hidden stepchild of the entire anti-trafficking movement,” says Martina Vandenberg, who founded the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center nearly three years ago after leaving her job with the Washington law firm of Jenner & Block. “There is no dissent that trafficking of children into the sex industry is horrific, similarly with adult women,” she adds. “But we also need to use some resources to prosecute forced labor, which is also horrific.”

WHEN LUCY MWAKA finally called the hotline for help, she did so with encouragement from several outsiders who had witnessed firsthand the constant verbal badgering from her employer, amid long workdays and little sleep.

To make sure that she didn’t leave the house, Mwaka says Njuguna called home repeatedly during the day. “If you don’t pick up the phone, she would know you’re not there,” Mwaka says.

She says Njuguna expected her to be on call 24 hours a day. “If it’s 4 in the morning and she wants water, she would call you to come get her some water,” Mwaka says. “That’s why you have to stay awake.”

After more than three years, following a move from a house on the outskirts of Rockville to a new residence near the downtown area, Mwaka decided she had to get out. “At one point, I just sat down and said, ‘I should not be going through this,’ ” Mwaka says. “But I [was] still scared—I wanted to do it in a way she would not know.”

She found a surprising ally in her boss’ boyfriend at the time; Mwaka says he often fought with Njuguna about how she was treating Mwaka. “He was always telling me to call the police on her,” Mwaka says.

In March 2014, Mwaka called the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s 24-hour hotline, which is located in a downtown Washington office that has no name on the door and extra security in place to guard against possible retribution by traffickers. Mwaka’s cry for help triggered a call to CASA (formerly Casa de Maryland), one of several immigrant advocacy organizations in the Washington area that aid victims of human trafficking.

Officials of such organizations say one of the biggest challenges regarding victims of both sex and labor trafficking is finding a place to house them while more permanent arrangements can be made. “We need to support our traditional shelters so that they can become more comfortable housing trafficking victims,” says Morgan Weibel, who heads the Baltimore office of the Tahirih Justice Center, which specializes in protecting immigrant women and girls fleeing violence.

In Mwaka’s case, CASA staffer Antonia Pena was dispatched to meet with her while Njuguna was at work. They came up with a plan in which Mwaka would be ready to leave the house in three days, on a Tuesday, again when Njuguna was working. The arrangements included a rented room where Mwaka could stay.

But an unexpected complication arose when Njuguna discovered the calls to the hotline that were made on the house phone. Njuguna had the phone line disconnected, and presented Mwaka with a phone bill for $754—about three times her monthly salary.

Mwaka says the phone bill triggered another argument between Njuguna and her boyfriend, which ended with Njuguna ordering him and Mwaka out of the house. “The boyfriend says [to Njuguna], ‘Where is she supposed to go?’ ” Mwaka recalls. “ ‘She doesn’t know anywhere past this door. You lock her in here like an animal.’ ”

The boyfriend drove Mwaka to the home of another Kenyan Embassy staffer sympathetic to her plight, where Mwaka spent her first night of freedom before moving to the room arranged for her by CASA.

Mwaka remembers the embassy worker’s reaction when she arrived at the doorstep: “I knew one day you would come to your senses.”

"HUMAN TRAFFICKING IS not like being a victim of a burglary or robbery, where people call up the cops and say, ‘Come help me, I’ve been victimized,’ ” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachel Yasser, who serves as the coordinator for the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force. “You have to re-create a victim’s account where it may be impossible to corroborate what happened to them. We may believe the victim, but there is a difference between believing something occurred and being able to prove it in court.”

Prosecutors face particularly steep challenges in labor trafficking cases: While the increasingly Internet-based nature of prostitution has provided law enforcement with openings to go after sex traffickers, detection in labor trafficking cases often relies on a tip to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline from the victim or a suspicious neighbor.

Vandenberg recalls one labor trafficking case in the Washington area that was uncovered when a neighbor called the hotline to say that a woman in a nearby home was only coming out of the house to take out the garbage, “and she looks sad.”

“We’ve had workers who call us who don’t even know where they are in the United States,” says Powers of the Polaris Project. “We have to have them find a piece of mail in the house to figure out where they are. That psychological coercion—the outside is so unknown—is very effective in keeping them in there.”

Diplomats generally bring in domestic workers under what’s called an A-3 visa—as was the case with Mwaka—while foreigners working for the World Bank or other international institutions utilize what is known as a G-5 visa. “These two categories of visas represent some of the most vulnerable workers in the United States, because they’re bound to their employer,” Vandenberg says. “The moment they walk out the front door or run away, they’re out of status. That is a powerful tether to have on a worker who’s terrified of being ‘illegal’ in this country.”

Even though Maryland has statutes that could be utilized, Montgomery County officials have mostly deferred to the U.S. attorney’s office and federal agencies to pursue labor trafficking cases. “In Maryland, we struggle because the extortion law we could use for labor trafficking is pretty underutilized in state courts,” Rodriguez says. “I think the issue is we don’t have a specific unit of the police department that is looking for these cases.”

But that’s not the only reason the number of labor trafficking cases is so low: Available data indicate that federal prosecutors have pursued significantly more sex trafficking than labor trafficking cases in recent years. By its count, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland prosecuted 55 human trafficking cases from 2009 through 2014, and only two of those involved labor trafficking. Nationwide, a survey by the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center of more than 300 federal criminal indictments brought for trafficking during a four-year period—2009 through 2012—found that less than 10 percent involved forced labor.

A number of labor trafficking victims have chosen to file civil suits, an option created by a change in federal law more than a decade ago. According to a database compiled by Vandenberg’s group, 147 civil trafficking suits were filed across the country between 2003 and earlier this year, with 138 of these involving labor trafficking and nine involving sex trafficking. Vandenberg describes this overall number as “tiny,” adding, “I think it reflects the fact that many trafficking victims don’t know they can bring these cases against the traffickers.”

The difficulty of proving such cases, coupled with the need to find an attorney willing to take on a time-consuming effort on a pro bono basis, also has created a steep hurdle. However, unlike many civil suits filed in state courts, where plaintiffs often have just a couple of years to file legal action, the 2003 federal law authorizing civil suits by trafficking victims provides for a 10-year statute of limitations.