YORK COUNTY — For decades children and adults alike have been warned about “stranger danger;” the creepy man in a beat-up paneled van waiting to snatch you up and haul you off to a fate no one deserves.
This, most often, is not the case.
Attitudes and stereotypes aside, human trafficking is more about coercion than kidnapping, and a recently-formed group in York County wants to educate the public and disrupt the cycle of sexual exploitation. The York County Human Trafficking Task Force – which started as a Rotary Club project -- hopes to erase the faces of sex trafficking from the York area.
The task force is divided into units, each with unique challenges and responsibilities to disrupt sex trade in York County. The committees – made up of individuals with diverse backgrounds – bring their members’ expertise to the table in order to effectively combat sex trafficking.
The goal of the group is to not only make the public aware of the issue, but to educate York County residents on what they can do to disrupt the sex trafficking plague.
Members of area law enforcement have been receiving specialized training, said York Chief of Police Edward Tjaden, who added that more internal training for officers is in the works.
York County Sheriff Department’s Lt. Paul Vrbka noted the connection between sex trafficking and other crimes. “A lot of these people are involved in both drug trafficking and human trafficking,” he said.
Task force member Carmen McKenny said she appreciates the role of law enforcement. “We can’t do it without law enforcement,” she said.
Local schools are being trained on how to identify human trafficking, as well as the hospitality industry in York. There are 11 hotels in York, plus campgrounds. Hospitality employees are crucial to disrupting sex trafficking, as many victims are sold in hotels.
“Our big focus is going to be the [Interstate 80 and Highway 81] interchange,” Vrbka said.
The York County Human Trafficking Task Force has plans to educate hospitality workers by putting together 4-5 teams who will meet with these employees. An interpreter will be available for staff who speak Spanish. Once the training is complete, hotels will receive a plaque stating their participation. The idea is to deter sex traffickers from utilizing the hotel for their illegal activity.
Medical professionals are also being trained how to identify – and treat – illegal sex workers. York General will hold a continuing education workshop tonight geared towards local nurses (the public is welcome to attend). The task force and York General put together the event – “York General Human Trafficking and Healthcare Workshop” – to help medical professionals learn the signs of these trauma-sensitive cases.
There is a need to educate church groups as well, said Rev. Michael Eickhoff, pastor of York First Presbyterian Church.
“Too many times churches just say ‘Don’t do that,’” he said. “That hasn’t helped.”
As a pastor, Eickhoff has a unique perspective concerning societal mores. He cites the tendency to blame the victim as a significant problem. “So much of the focus is on the ‘taken,’” he said.
As for residents of York County, Eickhoff said he sees disconnect between appearances and reality. “The majority of people in this community think this doesn’t exist,” he said.
Members of the York County Human Trafficking Task Force are ready to change these perceptions and assumptions, and put new information and strategies into action.