Cary Stuart describes her experience in sex trafficking during a Jan. 7 human trafficking awareness event at Portland City Hall. (Portland Phoenix/ Jordan Bailey)
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Cary Stuart was homeless in Westbrook when she was picked up by a man offering her a bed and a modeling career in New York. Instead, he took her to New Jersey and turned her out in the casinos with a quota of $1,000 per night.

She initially refused, but had no way out of the situation. Working as a prostitute up and down the East Coast for her traffickers became her life for the next four years. 

Stuart knew to avoid the cops wherever she was, but in Portland this was difficult. An officer confronted her and showed her some of her ads, even though they did not use her real picture. This was impressive in itself, but he then told her something that really caught her attention: that he wanted to help people like her, the victims of human trafficking. 

Tierra Ross speaks to a crowd gathered outside Portland City Council Chambers Jan. 6 after the council issued a proclamation declaring January human trafficking awareness month. Ross is a member of Survivor Speak, a nonprofit that supports victims of trafficking; Dee Clarke, the group’s founder, is seated. (Portland Phoenix/ Jordan Bailey)

Stuart had to spend some time in jail for prostitution, but she said she was grateful to be “safe behind cinderblocks.” The Portland Police Department also put her in contact with Preble Street Anti-Trafficking Services, which was started in 2013 to provide intensive case management and care coordination to survivors of human trafficking.

Preble Street in turn connected her with Dee Clarke, who founded nonprofit Survivor Speaks in 2015 and has been instrumental in bringing together survivors and advocating for their support for more than 16 years.

Clarke kept in touch with Stuart, and over time Stuart decided that she was ready to make changes, and that she would cooperate with police in their efforts to prosecute her traffickers. 

Stuart participated in Survivor Speaks’ Survivor Advocacy and Leadership Training program. She is now the president of its board of directors. She also received housing through the organization Courage LIVES, a residential program for women who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation.

“I love Maine, Maine has been very good to me,” Stuart said Jan. 7 at City Hall, where she spoke about her experiences in an awareness event. The City Council the night before declared January human trafficking awareness month, and renewed its commitment to working to end human trafficking through prevention and education.

Opioid connection

Zoe Brokos has been doing this work on the front lines for the city for the past 10 years, as head of the needle exchange program, which has recently merged with the substance use prevention program of the Portland Public Health division. The staff trains each year to identify cases of human trafficking, and refer victims to Preble Street and other nonprofits that provide support to victims.  

Brokos said an increase in trafficking cases correlates with the increase in opioid use in the community. Over the past five or six years, staff at the needle exchange started seeing a rise in unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted disease, and reports of domestic violence among clients who were actively using substances. When investigating those reports more closely, they would find that the situations seemed to be more than consensual sex work.

“These people were being held against their will,” she said. 

The situation Stuart described, being offered a bed and modeling gig in New York, is a common report from sex trafficking victims, Brokos said. But there are many other forms that human trafficking can take, including labor trafficking compelled by the use of force, fraud or coercion. 

“What we also see is that really blurry progression where it almost starts out transactional or consensual, and then something switches and there’s that power dynamic – the person feels stuck and that they don’t have any rights,” Brokos said.  

A common misconception is that trafficking involves smuggling. But smuggling is a crime that involves crossing borders, and human trafficking does not necessarily involve transportation. 

In some cases a victim is living with their dealer and the dealer uses drugs as a means of control. In one such situation, Brokos said, city staff coordinated with Preble Street Anti Trafficking Services to administer pregnancy and STD tests and other services to her at the needle exchange, because that was the only place the trafficker would allow her to go. 

Jess Felaro said she was picked up at the Preble Street Teen Center when she was homeless by a woman who offered to take her on a road trip and treat her as her own child. Felaro ended up being forced to speak at churches around the country about how the woman saved Felaro from the streets of Portland – so the woman could collect donations. 

Law enforcement reacts

The office of the Cumberland County district attorney was the first in Maine to set up a human trafficking unit with a dedicated assistant district attorney, a position that District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck held in the past. The unit identifies human trafficking victims and helps them through the criminal justice system; prosecutes traffickers; disrupts the market for sex with prostitutes, and educates the public about the dangers of trafficking. 

Sahrbeck said people in law enforcement were not aware of the problem until about seven years ago, when an investigation into an assault turned out to involve drug trafficking. 

“Then we realized that it was actually human trafficking going on,” he said, “and our first reaction was ‘in Portland, in Cumberland County, in Maine?’”  

After speaking to survivors, authorities learned the problem was more widespread and has been going on for decades. A 2015 assessment by research and consulting group Hornby Zeller Associates of South Portland estimated 200-300 cases of human trafficking occur in Maine annually. 

“Our mindset had to change,” Sahrbeck said. “We stopped looking at people involved in prostitution as criminals. We started looking to the victim as victims, which they are.”

Sahrbeck said people in law enforcement began to recognize that some crimes were cases of labor trafficking, and that it is not something that is only going on in the workforce. It can take many forms, such as being forced to carry drugs or steal for other people. 

“Traffickers work by control, through whatever mechanism they can use, if it’s a lack of housing, if it’s poverty, if it’s substance use disorder, if it’s physical abuse of any type,” Sahrbeck said, and they target the most vulnerable people in the community. 

He said the programs and resources available in the Portland area for victims of trafficking did not come out of top-down laws, but rather from the ground up, through the work of the victims who have created survivor support organizations, spoken up and brought attention to the issue. 

In 2017, the Maine Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report on human trafficking in Maine. It recommended enacting a vacatur law for victims of trafficking, which would allow states to vacate criminal convictions for crimes victims of trafficking were forced to commit.

Besides unencumbering victims from convictions that impede their ability to get jobs and housing, this would remove an obstacle that discourages victims to act as witnesses against their traffickers, the report noted.

In May, the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee considered a vacatur bill sponsored by Rep. Lois Reckitt, D-South Portland, but reported that it ought not pass. There were constitutional concerns raised about expunging and sealing records and about separation of powers, because only the executive branch may issue pardons.

Reckitt said there were several bills introduced around the same time that had to do with sealing records for crimes that are no longer crimes, and a study group was convened over the summer to look into the constitutional questions for all of these bills. That group has not concluded its work. 

On Jan. 10, 2019, Gov. Janet Mills spoke at the State House about her administration’s commitment to fighting trafficking and the perception among the public and law enforcement that prostitution is a choice. As attorney general, Mills said her office worked to develop training, increase data collections, review state laws, and added new training programs at the state’s Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro.

Most speakers at the Portland awareness event emphasized the strength and resilience of victims themselves. But in order to begin rebuilding their lives, they need a way to break their dependency on their traffickers. That, they emphasized, requires housing. 

“What’s most important is having a solid foundation, which includes appropriate housing, and stability, whether it be a safe house or a sober house, sometimes both,” Stuart said. “All of us need access to independent living.”