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Archives Speakers discuss human trafficking in North Country

February 20, 2019

By Kristina Dean
Staff Writer

WATERTOWN – By describing their experiences, a survivor of sex trafficking and a mother of a survivor warned Human Tracffickingapproximately 60 people gathered at the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse that trafficking is happening here and now.

“It’s probably right in front of your face. If there’s drugs here, there’s definitely trafficking going on. It’s hand-in-hand,” said survivor and advocate Salka Valerio during the Feb. 9 presentation.

The event was organized by the Sisters of St. Joseph Social Justice Committee and the Alliance for Better Communities of Watertown.

Although anyone can be trafficked, sex traffickers seek at-risk children, especially runaways, those from broken homes, in foster care, or have addiction problems, said Valerio, who was targeted and trafficked at age 14. Young people are groomed – often by someone they know – to gain their trust, then made promises of a job, a place to stay or a relationship, she explained.

“They are promised a job somewhere else, to live a better life. They get there and find they have to pay for room and board, transportation. Then, they (traffickers) take fees, they can’t pay and they have to keep working. The kids are coerced, by blackmail or threat,” she said.

“Sometimes the parents are on drugs, selling their kids to feed their habit. Sometimes it’s a runaway who is couch surfing and having survival sex to have something to eat or a place to sleep,” she said.

More than 1.6 million children run away from home, and one out of every five is lured into trafficking within 24 hours, Valerio said.

Victoria Recore, parent of a trafficking survivor, became emotional while describing how her daughter was taken to a hotel in Watertown three years ago by a person she thought was a friend. Three men physically and sexually assaulted her. The girl was drugged, which necessitated her transportation to a hospital in Syracuse, said Ms. Recore, who explained that her daughter was “let go” by the men because she wouldn’t stop fighting.

“It’s something everyone needs to be aware of. There are so many girls out on the street looking for love, looking for attention,” she said. “They (traffickers) gain their trust to take power over their victims. That’s their main goal. It hurts my heart and my soul that this is such a big franchise all over the world. It’s happening in our schools, our military. I would love to educate people all day on what the signs are. It’s right under our noses.”

Recore said she prayed for years to God, and she credits God with helping her daughter kick her addiction problem.

According to Ms. Valerio, some warning signs are sudden changes in clothing or appearance with no explainable source of income, carrying hotel room keys and/or lots of money, possessing more than one cell phone, running away from home multiple times, and the sudden presence of an older boyfriend.

Traffickers prey on individuals who have recently relocated, have an addiction, are runaways or homeless, have mental health concerns or are involved in the child welfare system. Forty-five percent of their victims are male.

Sister Bethany Fitzgerald, a Sister of St. Joseph, said trafficking is the second largest organized crime in the world. The sisters have offered a presentation on trafficking for the past five years during Human Trafficking Education month, coinciding with the Feb. 8 International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking. Sister Bethany stressed it is important to recognize red flags, and to educate and protect children.

Many people who attended were surprised trafficking existed in this area, and many wanted more education and resources, and asked how to bring information into schools, she said.

As a child of immigrants from Honduras, Valerio said she “fell through the cracks” many times, from when school officials didn’t recognize she couldn’t speak English, to Child Protective Services workers who were unaware of her mother’s abuse. As a depressed teen, she tried to take her own life several times and ran away from home.

She was lured by a boyfriend into traveling to New York City to his “uncle’s house,” where she was told she was owned and paid for, then locked into a basement. The sexually inexperienced 14-year-old was sexually and physically assaulted many times until she agreed to prostitute herself. Eventually, when she was 15, she was able to get to a homeless shelter, where she discovered she was pregnant.

“I was falling through the cracks all the time. Luckily, I was resilient. I had strength. The thing that kept me going was I had to show my mom I could be somebody without her help. I had to prove to her I could become a better version of myself,” Valerio said.

Valerio is a community organizer, educator, linguistics translator and outreach liaison for the Crime Victims Assistance Center in Binghamton. She earned an associate degree in Criminal Justice from SUNY Broome College and speaks publicly about her life to shed light on trafficking.

To report suspected trafficking, call the national hotline at 888-3737-888 or text BEFREE to 233733.

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