Nearly 120 people gathered on the steps of Babylon Town Hall in Lindenhurst Thursday evening for a “Rise Up For Children” rally run by Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R).
The nonprofit organization works with law enforcement to coordinate rescues and rehabilitate children who have been kidnapped and trafficked — throughout the world.
Over 100 rallies were held elsewhere in the U.S. as well for World Day Against Human Trafficking. The day concluded with a live-stream concert hosted by founder Tim Ballard, a former special agent for the federal government, who created the foundation to rescue children after seeing first hand the atrocities himself.
Ballard is now an author and motivational speaker whose life mission is to combat global human trafficking.
“Children are being sold over and over again, as many as five times a day, as young as 7 years old,” said Janet Lombardo, the local O.U.R chapter leader.
She organized the rally to raise attention to the sobering fact that sex trafficking is happening right here in our own neighborhoods.
There are currently over 220 known victims of sex trafficking in Suffolk County alone, said Sgt. Det. James P. Murphy of the Suffolk Trafficking Investigations Unit.
Det. Sgt. Murphy is a a 32-year SCPD veteran who helps operate Long Island’s only Human Trafficking Investigation Unit, in conjunction with the Suffolk DA’s office and the FBI.
It has seven investigators who work from the Nassau County border to the Montauk Lighthouse. “What most people don’t understand is that it’s happening to our girls right here in our neighborhoods,” Murphy said.
95 percent of the victims the unit deals with are born and raised in Suffolk County.
(Story continues below photo from Thursday’s rally.)
The unit partners with agencies like Empowerment Collaborative of Long Island (ECLI), which helps build relationships with the victims and give them the support system they need to recover.
The Long Island-based nonprofit was founded in 2015 and works with survivors of trauma that includes human trafficking, domestic violence, sexual assault, incarceration, homelessness, substance abuse, mental illness, poverty, gang, and community violence.
“They say it best: They try to be what a best friend would be,” Murphy said.
In the two years of operation, the unit has locked up 52 sex-traffickers and is dealing with 60 current cases. Many more arrests are coming.
But young girls are not the only victims on Long Island, Murphy said.
Boys, especially transgender boys, as young as 13 fall victim to sexual predators as well.
While many of the victims Murphy has met with are between the ages of 16-26, their abuse usually started much younger.
Eight out of 10 young girls and boys who are identified by the Suffolk County unit acknowledged that some form of sexual abuse or rape occurred in their household before the age of 12.
“That’s what sets them off on that path to be recruited,” Murphy said.
More often than not, Murphy sees children from difficult home lives get caught up with older men. They are vulnerable members of society who are groomed under the pretense of love. Slowly, the abusers get them dependent on drugs. From there, they are coerced into sexual rape for profit to fund the addiction. The pimps, who often have a handful of underage victims, put them in motels to keep them isolated from their friends and family.
Even when victims are in contact with detectives and advocacy agencies — it’s hard to get them out of the cycle of abuse.
The victims have now become reliant on their sexual abusers for food, shelter and their newfound drug addiction. And it’s hard to seek treatment.
Murphy said the stigma of seeking help also plays a huge factor in why most cases go unreported. Many victims feel they can not escape their pimp or drug addiction.
The unit tries to set these young girls and boys up with agencies to seek refuge and treatment. Some call and try to get help, while others never make it out and lose their lives to drug overdoses.
This past year alone, eight girls with whom Murphy and his unit have worked with have died from heroin overdoses.
“Most victims of human trafficking do not seek help or report their abusers to law enforcement out of fear of both the traffickers and of facing prosecution themselves,” according to the Suffolk DA’s office.
Education and prevention are the best tools to combat human trafficking, says Janet Lombardo, a former Copiague Chamber Board member and local chapter organizer.
She has been working to bring education to local school districts about the dangers of sex and child trafficking, especially on the internet.
She recommended that people join the local O.U.R chapter to receive online training to spot the signs of trafficking within our local communities — and for parents to protect their own children and other loved ones.
“Sexual predators know how to target children online,” Lombardo warned.
With children out of school for summer, on top of an unusual school year due to COVID-19, calls reporting child sex trafficking have skyrocketed across the country.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has reported a 90% increase of calls to their cyber hotline around child sex trafficking concerns from January to June 2020, versus the same time period in 2019.
“It’s so important right now, because children are out of school and are using the internet more,” Lombardo said. “These are predators and they know exactly what they’re doing.”
After nearly five months in lockdown, “kids are feeling isolated, some more than others, and this is what they do,” Lombardo said.
“We have to be their voice.”