PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- Sex trafficking is a growing problem in Maine, as out-of-state pimps target 12- to 24-year-old women, promising them love, money or drugs, and delivering shame, abuse and humiliation.
Experts say the crime is difficult to prosecute because victims often are embarrassed or frightened to come forward. They may also have feelings for their pimp and don't realize they're being abused.
Now a coalition of Mainers has come together to bring support for victims, and find new ways to prosecute those who take advantage of them.
Daniella Cameron, the Anti-Trafficiking Coalition Manager at Preble Street said step one is to get people talking about the problem. "One of the big issues with this, with trafficking, is that people don't talk about it," she said.
Preble Street is part of local and statewide coalitions that have come together to support victims and press for prosecution. "We have to start talking about this as a community. We have to see this differently," Cameron said.
Destie Hohman Sprague, the Program Coordinator for Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the ignorance around sex trafficking in Maine has worked to the advantage of out of state pimps. Sprague said, "Maine is becoming quite well known as a recruiting ground for sex trafficking victims, in part, because the awareness is pretty low here."
The Maine Sex Trafficking and Exploitation Network, which Preble Street is a part of, has been training social service providers, first responders, and law enforcement on how to spot trafficking victims, and how to help them.
Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck says it matters. Many trafficking victims end up being arrested on drug charges. Sauschuck said, "Our investigators are looking for this issue now. It's not just a drug investigation. These are natural questions that we're now asking because we want to get to the truth. We want to get to the bottom of this."
Preble Street announced at a news conference in October that it will be getting $400,000 in federal funds to help victims get the services they need to turn their lives around. dee Clark, a victim's advocate who was trafficked as a teen, feels it will make a difference. "Just saying, 'Here's a way out. I can help you' isn't enough because, 'Ok, help me do what? Help me live a new life? Help me think differently about myself? When everything out there says there's something wrong with me?'"
And there are efforts in the legislature, too. This session, State Representative Amy Volk (R-Scarborough) has proposed a bill creating a trafficking intervention fund, using fines from johns. She also hopes to protect trafficking victims from having prostitution on their criminal records. There's nothing worse to me than to think that a victim is continuing to be victimized by our judicial system," she said.
And last year, the state passed an aggravated trafficking law with stiffer penalties for pimps, giving law enforcement one more tool to use for prosecution.
Sauschuck said, "We've got to show that you can't be trafficking in human beings. We're not going to stand for it and if at all possible, we're going to send you to prison."
But Sauschuck acknowledges, prosecution is difficult. There's often little evidence, and victims often don't want to cooperate, whether it's because of fear, shame or drug addiction.
Right now in Maine, helping victims rebuild their lives is coming first.
Sauschuck said, "If they understand you're there to help them, then maybe you can get them into a better situation, a safer situation. Sometimes it's all that takes to have them open up."
There are other regional efforts underway to stop trafficking outside of Portland. Both Bangor and Lewiston-Auburn have work groups. The Auburn Police Department is leading a coalition putting together a conference on sex trafficking this spring, called "Not Here."
And if you think you or someone you know might be the victim of trafficking, you can call the National human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
Click here to learn more about efforts to fight sex trafficking in Maine.
To learn more about sex trafficking nationally, click here.