Northampton County task force targets trafficking of minors
Tue, Mar 14, 2023 11:12 AM
By Lauren Jessop, The Center Square
A new task force in Northampton County will combat human trafficking and provide services to victims, with the primary focus of the operation on those who prey on minors.
The initiative was announced early last week by Northampton County District Attorney Terence Houck and took effect immediately. On Friday, involved agencies attended a kickoff meeting with agents from Homeland Security Investigations to discuss the goals and mission of the project.
The Northampton County Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Force will target subjects who use the internet to meet minors for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity – as well as those soliciting sex from adult sex workers – and then connect victims to legal, medical, and social services.
“Human trafficking is a global issue and the Lehigh Valley is no exception,” Houck said in a March 6 press release. Centrally located between Philadelphia and New York, with access to a high volume of highways and hotels, the area has become a potential hub for human trafficking and child sexual exploitation.
In addition to HSI, the task force’s partners include the Northampton County District Attorney’s Office Detective Division, and the police departments of Bethlehem, Forks, Palmer, and Bushkill Townships, Wilson Borough, and the city of Easton.
Northampton County Chief Deputy District Attorney Tatum Wilson, who also heads up the office’s Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Unit, told The Center Square that HSI had reached out to their office about initiating the task force a few months ago after experiencing success with similar operations in Berks and Lehigh Counties. After several years, their investigations have resulted in successful prosecutions.
Wilson said the group will concentrate on getting “the worst of the worst – being those who are targeting our children.”
She said an undercover social media presence was being organized to target pedophiles who attempt to solicit sex from minors. Agents will communicate with potential offenders over time to see if they take the additional step of making plans to meet in person, believing them to be minors.
The secondary goal is to identify sex workers who are being trafficked. Agents will respond to online ads to gather information that could locate, identify, and subsequently prosecute traffickers.
Wilson said the objective is not to arrest or prosecute the victims. Even if the victims are unwilling to provide information on their traffickers, an attempt will be made to connect them to services such as human trafficking survivor networks, social and drug and alcohol programs, and housing opportunities.
Human trafficking cases involving adults are very difficult to prosecute, Wilson said, because victims can be reluctant to cooperate. They are hoping that their victim-centered approach will help gain the trust of those they are trying to help.
“We are trying to help people out of a situation that no one chooses, or wants to be in,” she added.
Each partner agency will designate an officer to the task force who will have the ability to do federal investigations and warrants, as well as travel across county lines to assist in investigations in coordination with HSI.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline recorded 171 victim cases in which 42 involved minors in Pennsylvania during 2021. The numbers are not cumulative, as one case could involve multiple victims.
Wilson said she is grateful HSI included them in the expansion of the program and for the training local officers will receive.
“That just makes for a stronger prosecution,” she said. “It makes for a safer community.”