Human Trafficking in Pennsylvania? It’s here if you look for it.

By Judy Hale Reed, Intern, WLP Western Pennsylvania Office


In June 2012, the Pennsylvania Joint State Government Commission Advisory Committee on Human Trafficking released the results of a two-year study entitled, Human Trafficking in Pennsylvania: Policy Recommendations and Proposed Legislation. The Advisory Committee found that Pennsylvania is a pass-through, source, and destination state for human trafficking. This means that human traffickers move domestic and international victims through the state, people already in Pennsylvania are exploited, and people are brought to Pennsylvania for labor, sex, service, and other exploitation.

Human trafficking is modern slavery, defined by the United Nations and federal U.S. law as the movement of persons for purposes of exploitation involving force, fraud or coercion. The forms of exploitation are almost infinite, from circuit brothels, street prostitution, and sex tourism, to domestic, agricultural, and industrial labor, to begging and petty crimes. Victims are men and women, adults and minors, domestic and international citizens. Many are poor, but some are economically secure and may be well-educated. Most victims are trying to improve their lives, or have fallen into a trap of threats and coercion.

According to the University of Michigan Law School’s Human Trafficking Database, trafficking in Pennsylvania has included  a prostitution ring exploiting female minors and adults; forced labor at nail salons and restaurants; and sex tourism travelers who went to Costa Rica, Romania, and Moldova to have sex with male and female minors. The traffickers in Pennsylvania have been legal husbands, “boyfriends,” and strangers to the victims. These are only the cases that have been prosecuted. Many cases are dropped, and many more victims are never identified.

Human trafficking is a particularly hidden crime, often “hidden in plain sight.” Victims may appear to be workers, but with a closer look they are not paid, not paid what they were promised, and  denied freedom of movement, access to communication with friends and family, medical care, and adequate nutrition while being subjected to forced labor, debt bondage, and physical and mental violence.

The Polaris Project, a national advocacy and policy support organization that helps states develop anti-trafficking legislation, rates Pennsylvania near the bottom of U.S. states. Polaris recommends that Pennsylvania take major steps to improve and implement anti-trafficking laws. The Pennsylvania legislature is beginning that process, by authorizing the Joint State Government Commission Advisory Committee on Human Trafficking to study human trafficking in the Commonwealth. The Advisory Committee report includes extensive legislative recommendations. For the most comprehensive of these bills, click here. In terms of local responses, about 22 of 67 counties in Pennsylvania have organized anti-trafficking efforts, with a response team, an awareness-raising coalition, or both. Many, but not all, of these groups include local law enforcement or FBI agents.

To learn more about human trafficking, visit:

Polaris Project

Polaris Project Online Trainings on almost 50 topics

Department of Defense Combatting Trafficking in Persons

 Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Rescue and Restore Campaign – Look Beneath the Surface

 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – Blue Campaign

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The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.
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