Last modified: Wednesday, November 25, 2015

SOUTH HADLEY — Few issues could seem further from the quiet Mount Holyoke College campus than human trafficking. But as experts will discuss Thursday at a panel on the topic, the sale of people for sex work or other labor is a growing problem in Massachusetts and the rest of the country.

“It definitely happens here in Massachusetts,” said panelist Carrie Baker, an assistant professor of the study of women and gender at Smith College. “Nobody really knows at what level, though. It’s very hard to ascertain because it’s underground.”

Many Americans think that human trafficking is a problem only in other countries, said Tina Frundt, a survivor who now runs Courtney’s House in Washington, where victims and survivors can get help by calling a hotline, attending survivor-led support groups or getting therapy.

“Over 100,000 children are trafficked inside the U.S. each year, and that doesn’t reflect boys,” Frundt said in a telephone interview Tuesday. That number also doesn’t include immigrants who are brought to the U.S., she said.

Frundt was 14 when the man she considered her boyfriend — someone 10 years her senior — took her away from her family and forced her into prostitution in Cleveland along with three other girls.

Frundt and Baker are among the five panelists at Thursday’s panel discussion, titled “Too Close to Home: Human Trafficking in the United States.” The other panelists include Lt. Pi Heseltine of the Massachusetts State Police Human Trafficking Unit, Cassie Lee Miller, case management coordinator at Lutheran Social Services in Worcester, and Eric Goodwin, founder of Human Trafficking Students, a Boston advocacy group that spreads awareness on college campuses.

The panel is sponsored by the student organization Creating Awareness and Unity for Social Equality. It takes place in Clapp Laboratory’s Hooker Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

Modern-day slavery

Baker teaches a course on the sex trade and human trafficking and has published articles on the topic. She said awareness about the issue inside the U.S. has been growing since 2000, when Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking Protection Act, which protects those who enter the country illegally as victims of trafficking.

Since then, some states including Massachusetts have passed laws on the issue and a few nonprofits have sprung up to help victims, who range from young girls and boys to adults.

Labor trafficking refers to people forced into work, from domestic servitude to agriculture, many of whom are men and boys brought to the U.S. from other countries, Baker said. Sex trafficking involves victims who are either under 18 or forced into sex work. They are mostly female, she said.

Baker said immigrants brought to the U.S. for prostitution or other work can be lured or tricked, but many come under debt bondage.

“That’s when someone pays for their passage into the U.S. and then holds the debt over them to force them to work,” she said.

Domestically, there are many different ways children are “put in the pipeline” of prostitution, she said. Some are kidnapped, others are coerced or seduced runaways or homeless teenagers, and some are young girls who are manipulated by their older “boyfriends.”

Frundt said trafficking perpetrators in the U.S. include gangs, pimps and even the victim’s family. Some trafficking is drug-related, and boys or transgender victims are sold by so-called “mamas,” she said.

“Each has a different dynamic of control,” she said.

Trafficking in Massachusetts

While Baker said she has not specifically studied human trafficking in Massachusetts, she has worked with experts who have.

“They’ve talked about the ways it manifests in Massachusetts, and there are definitely cases where women are brought from other countries to work in Boston, Worcester or Springfield,” she said.

The state passed An Act Relative to the Commercial Trafficking of People in November 2011, a law that criminalized trafficking and set up the interagency Human Trafficking Task Force and a fund to help victims.

“It’s having a big impact on how the issue is dealt with here,” Baker said.

One important piece is that law enforcement officers now have access to more training on trafficking, she said.

“Across the country there have been a lot of resources directed toward teaching law enforcement and social service agencies to recognize the signs of trafficking, to ask questions and to be sensitive to the signs that they might be being exploited,” she said.

Since then, as has happened across the country from similar legislation, more law enforcement officials are getting training to spot the signs of human or sex trafficking, Baker said. She recalled a 2010 court case in which a 13-year-old Texas girl was convicted of prostitution, while investigators ignored the fact that she was living with her 32-year-old “boyfriend” and under state law was too young to even consent to sex. The conviction was reversed by the state’s Supreme Court.

“A lot of people thought before that a girl prostitute was just a juvenile delinquent,” Baker said. “But if a girl is that young, she’s not a criminal, she’s a victim.”

Frundt said that while some laws and attitudes about trafficking are changing, there is still a lot of work to do to prevent others from experiencing the violence and slavery that she did.

“It’s great to pass laws, but they take a while to go into effect and to trickle down,” she said. “There’s a long way to go.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at


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