Last week, members of a newly formed task force gathered in the Vermont attorney general’s office  in Montpelier to discuss how to address the growing problem of human trafficking in the state. A broad range of expertise — in law enforcement, criminal justice, social services and victim advocacy — was represented around the table. But few Vermonters have experience in combating a crime whose victims can be indistinguishable from its perpetrators — as one attendee underlined with a cautionary tale.
In July 2004, the Essex and Williston police departments, along with the FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, raided the Tokyo Spa massage business in Essex Junction and two other “health clubs” in Williston and South Burlington. The raids followed  months of police surveillance and undercover investigations of three Asian ostensible massage businesses that were fronts for prostitution operations.
Lieutenant Rick Garey of the Essex PD, who participated in the investigation, told the task force that, with hindsight, he would have handled the busts very differently. In particular, he now knows that the “prostitutes” the officers arrested and detained weren’t criminals so much as victims of an international human-trafficking ring run by a Korean organized-crime network.
In all, eight Asian women were taken into custody, including three who admitted to performing sex acts for money. All were detained at the Franklin County Jail in St. Albans, cited on federal immigration violations, released and ordered to report to Immigration Court in Boston. Only one — the owner of the Tokyo Spa — was charged in state court with a felony, but she quickly fled the country to escape prosecution. Six years later, a warrant is still out for her arrest.
“Our witnesses floated into the wind,” Garey told members of the task force, “and our investigation ground to a halt.”
Garey’s story highlights a major challenge police and prosecutors face when they try to fight human trafficking: The victims of such crimes usually have little or no incentive to work with investigators because they fear their own arrest and deportation.
“I couldn’t see any good reason for those women to cooperate with us,” recalled Robert Simpson, the former Chittenden County state’s attorney who handled the case. As Simpson pointed out, state prosecutors lack the authority to promise victims immunity from federal prosecution and deportation.
The Vermont Human Trafficking Task Force  was created in April when Gov. Jim Douglas signed Act 85  into law. It was charged with studying the problem of human trafficking in Vermont and making recommendations to the legislature.
Currently, Vermont is one of only five states in the nation without a human-trafficking law. As a result, police and prosecutors say, their hands are often tied, because they lack the resources and statutory tools to bring such cases to state court. Given the global scope of the problem, even the feds can only do so much.
Human trafficking, also referred to as modern-day slavery, is a $32 billion-a-year industry, the world’s second-largest criminal enterprise behind drug smuggling, according to Jim Dold of the Polaris Project , an antitrafficking organization based in Washington, D.C.
Dold, who participated by phone in last week’s task force meeting, noted that an estimated 12 million to 27 million people are trafficked internationally, usually for forced labor, sexual exploitation or both. The U.S. State Department estimates that each year, 14,500 to 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked into the United States alone.
Under federal law, human trafficking differs from human smuggling in that it involves the recruiting, transporting and harboring of people for forced labor or commercial exploitation. Trafficking victims are held against their will, typically through the use of force, fraud or coercion.
Moreover, the shackles of modern-day slavery aren’t necessarily physical. They can also be economic, such as debt bondage, or psychological, such as threats of violence against victims’ families and friends back in their home countries.
In the 2004 case, the victims all lived on the premises but were free to leave from time to time. One victim told police that the money she was paid for her sexual services went toward paying off the sizeable debt she’d incurred in exchange for being brought into the country illegally.
How big is the problem in Vermont? Local human-trafficking experts say it’s difficult to determine, in part because most police, health care providers and crime-victim advocates aren’t trained to look for it.
Edith Klimoski is the director of Give Way to Freedom , a new nonprofit organization that opened earlier this year in Essex Junction. Its mission is to educate the public about human trafficking and provide care and services to victims.
Recently, Give Way to Freedom conducted a brief online survey of state agencies and nonprofit organizations around Vermont, including emergency-room staffers, advocates for sexual and domestic violence victims, and employees of the Department for Children and Families. The survey asked about their experiences with known or suspected victims of human trafficking.
The survey netted just 50 respondents, 36 of whom were DCF social workers. Nevertheless, Klimoski noted that about a quarter of respondents reported at least one contact with a possible trafficking victim, and some as many as six contacts. One respondent, an unnamed emergency-room physician, characterized the trafficking problem in Vermont as “moderate to large.”
How is the task force addressing the problem? One such tool is a program created in October 2009 called the New Neighbors Victim Outreach Project . Using an $80,000 federal grant, the project just launched a public campaign in 10 languages to reach potential crime victims in Vermont.
Barbara Whitchurch, the project’s director, explained that many non-English-speaking crime victims are afraid to contact police, even when they’re in the country legally. Sometimes it’s because they don’t understand local laws, or have been falsely told by an abusive partner that they’ll be deported for filing a report. Others come from countries where the entire criminal justice system is corrupt and cannot be trusted to safeguard victims’ rights.
“The whole catch to this is, nobody is going to call the police if they’re undocumented,” Whitchurch added.
Whitchurch recounted a case in Grand Isle County that’s symptomatic of the problem: Some undocumented workers were recently assaulted and robbed; they kept their cash at home for fear banking might reveal their immigration status and whereabouts to federal authorities.
Whitchurch is trying to spread the word that Vermont law enforcement isn’t out to prosecute crime victims or witnesses who are in the country illegally. As she explained, many such individuals have become “sitting ducks” for those who would take advantage of them with impunity.
Of course, getting that word out presupposes that Vermont police will actually adhere to such principles. Currently, only Burlington, Middlebury and the Vermont State Police have explicit, bias-free policing policies.
However, Attorney General Bill Sorrell has announced that in the next few weeks he’ll unveil a statewide bias-free policing protocol and will recommend that all Vermont law enforcement agencies adopt it.
The new policy, a byproduct of a 2009 recommendation by the Vermont Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, was initially meant to address the problem of racial profiling  by police. However, as Sorrell pointed out, with so much attention focused recently on Arizona’s new immigration law , he felt compelled to take a position on the specific question of undocumented individuals living in Vermont. As he put it, “We’re trying to put together a policy that will try to convince victims and witnesses that they need not fear Vermont law enforcement.”
It’s worth noting that the new policy won’t be mandated in statute, meaning that some departments and sheriff’s offices could continue their current practice of enforcing federal immigration laws. If that happens, antitrafficking advocates fear, many crime victims will remain hidden in the shadows — and in harm’s way.