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We like to imagine that the issue of human trafficking is far from our own backyards, tucked away in some seedy alley or distant foreign country. But the truth is, it may be happening much closer to home.
Today is Human Trafficking Awareness Day -- a reminder that the scourge of human trafficking is far-reaching, spanning cities, rural areas, and even suburbs from coast to coast. It's also known to coincide with popular sporting events like the Super Bowl.
But what many people are still unaware of is the phenomenon of suburban sex trafficking.
Sex Trafficking in Suburbs
From upscale neighborhoods in Pennsylvania and New Jersey to family-friendly areas in Chicago, suburban sex trafficking is a secret reality, the sheer magnitude of which is only beginning to come to light.
Every year, the FBI conducts periodic human trafficking raids that lead to the rescue of hundreds of sex trafficking victims. In one such raid last year, a number of the victims were discovered in suburban areas, reports The Philadelphia Inquirer.
In stark contrast to cities, where trafficked girls are often visibly working on the streets, suburban trafficking is more discreet, said Kate Keisel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the nonprofit Polaris Project.
Trafficked women in suburbia are offered up for sex in ads via websites such as Craigslist. They often work in brothels advertised as "massage parlors" that specifically cater to suburban communities, Keisel said.
A survey that Keisel's program conducted a few years ago found more than 500 massage businesses in New Jersey were actually fronts for brothels. The businesses were "very discreet and operating in extremely affluent suburbs," Keisel said.
Certain populations are especially vulnerable to trafficking, including undocumented immigrants, runaway and homeless youth, victims of trauma and abuse, refugees, and other marginalized groups and individuals. But an increasing number of trafficked victims are being recruited from wealthy suburbs right here in the United States.
Last March, federal prosecutors charged five alleged gang members with trafficking teenage girls into prostitution in suburban Northern Virginia, one of the wealthiest areas in the United States, according to an FBI affidavit. The alleged gang members solicited as many as 800 girls -- who were as young as 16 years old -- from "good homes and good neighborhoods" who were not runaways, but were lured in by flattery and promises of great wealth, reports ABC News.
On the West Coast, Kacie Klinnert, then 17, was abducted from a Safeway grocery store in suburban Walnut Creek, California, and trafficked in family-friendly and affluent areas surrounding San Francisco, according to the Bay Area's KNTV.
These women are far from alone; to turn a deaf ear is to feign ignorance about what's actually happening behind the gates of your community.