New York has one of the worst human trafficking problems in the country. The victims are not just young girls from overseas, but victims born and raised in the Capital Region.
The average age of local trafficking victims is around 16 years old.
One of those victims chose to sit down with NEWS10 ABC to tell her story for the first time under the condition that we did not reveal her identity or disclose exactly where she grew up.
We will refer to her as “Mary.”
“I was sold off,” she said.
Mary’s story takes place in a neighborhood in the Capital Region.
“I was taken by knife point, dragged into a car, and given a lot of drugs and forced to walk to the streets and sell my body,” she explained.
Mary shared with NEWS10 that by the time she was 14 years old, she was sold off by her mother.
“They just considered me a runaway,” she said.
Mary was born and raised in the Capital Region. She’s afraid to say which neighborhood out of fear that people she knows will find out about her past. Mary told NEWS10 she was forced to walk the streets to make money.
“I was arrested for being a prostitute but wasn’t my fault,” she said.
Cassie Walker is the executive director for Safe Inc. in Schenectady.
“It is a very underreported problem, and people don’t understand it’s happening in their back yard,” she said.
Walker’s outreach team encounters about 1,000 runaway or homeless kids on the street each year.
“Nine times of out 10 they will be approached by a pimp or someone in the sex trafficking world,” she said.
Therefore, her team tries to get to them within the first 24 hours and get them off the streets. Safe Inc. helps about 225 children a year in its shelter.
According to Walker, 90 percent of them have experienced some sort of sexual exploitation. She said young girls are forced to sell their bodies for food, money or even drugs.
“The Capital District is kind of a hub,” she added. “Schenectady maybe more so than other areas because it’s convenient.”
Walker explained that all the major thruways go through the Electric City.
“It does exist, and it’s in your own neighborhood,” Mary said.
With the help of the internet and sites like Backpage and Craigslist, the crime goes undetected. Walker said it happens in both seedy and high end hotels. She’s even seen young, vulnerable girls be approached via Facebook.
“Trafficking can be from Albany and Schenectady; trafficking can be from Niskayuna to Schenectady,” she said.
“These lives are really destroyed because of something they were not responsible for given their underage status,” U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said.
The problem is so concerning, the senator is now getting involved trying to pass new legislation for trafficking survivors.
“I’ve heard of cases where a girl is trafficked by her parents; I’ve heard of cases where a girl has been trafficked by foster parents, young girls running away from home,” Gillibrand said.
Gillibrand says survivors end up getting arrested, prosecuted and stuck with records that follow them around.
“There’s no phone number 1-800-I-wanna- get- off-the- streets,” Mary said.
Gillibrand is pushing for post-conviction relief, so victims forced to commit crimes can find help and opportunities making it easier for them to start with a clean slate. The Trafficking Survivors Relief Act of 2016, would expunge the records of survivors of sex trafficking.
Gillibrand believes the legislation will pass with bi-partisan support sometime after November.
An emotional Mary stated, “Whatever you do, it doesn’t go away. It’s always there. You can’t do anything about the past.”
Mary has managed to take control of her present and future. She’s on the path of healing her emotional bruises. Now she wants to shine a spotlight on the dark problem and possibly help another young victim who may be in her shoes.