January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month and on Wednesday afternoon, Erie County officials met with community organizations and law enforcement working to end human trafficking and identify victims.
"Human trafficking is a modern-day slavery and a multibillion-dollar-a-year crime that involves the use of force, fraud and coercion to obtain some sort of labor or commercial sex act," said Kevin Kelly, Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security in Buffalo. "Human trafficking is a hidden crime, as victims rarely come forward to receive help because of some sort of language barrier, fear of the traffickers and/or fear of law enforcement, which is why our nongovernmental organizations are so vital."
The International Institute of Buffalo is partnering with the Erie County Human Trafficking Unit, the Erie County Department of Social Services and the New York State Office of Children and Family Services to form Safe Harbour, dedicated to fighting human trafficking with children.
International Institute Executive Director Eva Hassett said the Erie County partnership is invaluable to fighting trafficking.
"The innovation includes referring cases simultaneously to more than one partner, working cases together and we've also gotten really smart, I think - and now I'm just talking about trafficked youth - in working to help this community identify those who might be vulnerable to trafficking or who might be trafficked," Hassett said.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said this is a pioneering program.
"I'm proud to say that as of 2019, we've received a grant of $43,000. Now that doesn't sound like a tremendous amount of money in the grand scheme of things, but it's one of the first grants that New York State has offered with regards to this type of Safe Harbour program," said Poloncarz. "There are only five Safe Harbour units in all in New York State and almost every single one of them are downstate. When it comes to upstate, we are one of the only ones that exists and New York State Office of Child and Family Services has identified our program as a best practices program."
The Erie County Sheriff's Department has also dedicated a deputy and civilian personnel to combat human trafficking, while the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has donated 75 "Hope Bags," supplies for child trafficking victims often left with nothing but the clothes on their back when they are rescued.