Human trafficking occurring in DC’s backyard

ROCKVILLE, Md. — Human trafficking is a global problem — with a local impact in Montgomery County.

And on Thursday, the county’s Human Trafficking Task Force and a State Department delegation discussed the challenges human trafficking raises.

Representatives from 19 countries — including Paraguay, India, Tanzania and the Czech Republic — heard from county leaders on the shared problems of dealing with human trafficking, including detecting trafficking operation rings and how to assist trafficking victims.

It’s often hard for residents to believe that trafficking could be happening right in their own backyards, said Jodi Finkelstein, executive director of the Commission for Women. Her ride-alongs with Montgomery County police, she said, were eye-opening.

“I don’t want to say I was surprised by it, because I had some idea what to expect,” she said. But she said she left those ride-along shifts thinking, “Wow, we need to be doing a lot more to help not only law enforcement, but the victims.”

It’s difficult to say how widespread the problem of human trafficking is on both the global and local level, Finkelstein said. “Because it is so underreported, I can’t say we had X-number of victims,” she said.

But local police have become “phenomenal” partners, she said, in trying to detect trafficking operations and to make arrests.

Human trafficking is a universal problem, and no one in isolation is going to solve it, said Debbie Feinstein, chief of the county state’s attorney’s office’s special victims division.

“We all have to work together and have so much to learn from each other,” she said.

Feinstein explained how federal agencies, the state of Maryland and Montgomery County work together to investigate and prosecute trafficking operations. Among the tools traffickers use are apps such as Kik that allow traffickers and their victims to communicate without detection.

“They provide challenges because the messages are exchanged and they literally disappear,” she said, whereas communications shared on other apps have allowed law enforcement to successfully prosecute trafficking organizations.

Montgomery County Councilmember Tom Hucker, who serves on the council’s Public Safety Committee, said human trafficking is the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world. He was happy to see the delegation visit the county.

“We have to have important partnerships, and we’ll have some friends in 19 countries now that we can be in touch with to share strategies and best practices,” he said.

Feinstein added, “We want to believe it doesn’t happen, but we aren’t immune to it here in Montgomery County, and human trafficking relies on individuals putting their head in the sand and not wanting to see what may be going on.”

She urged residents who see things that seem out of place or suspicious to contact police. “We all need to be aware and report things when we have concerns,” she said.

For more information, visit Montgomery County’s Department of Health and Human Services website and an online resources guide from the county’s Human Trafficking Task Force.

Victims can find help at the county’s Victim Assistance and Sexual Assault Program.

Or call police at 911 or the Montgomery County Abused Persons Program at 240-777-4673.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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