IST plans seminar to spotlight human trafficking

Stephanie Koons
January 14, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Human trafficking is an insidious crime that lacks clear legal definition and severe penalties, according to a group of researchers at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST). In recognition of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, the group is organizing a seminar Jan. 17 to raise awareness of the growing human trafficking problem in Pennsylvania and launch a dialogue on issues related to sex and labor trafficking.

“We’re looking at human trafficking in a lot of different ways,” said Andrea Forster, a security and risk analysis (SRA) major at the College of IST. “Why not bring people in to educate them and hear everyone’s sides?”

The Human Trafficking Awareness Seminar, sponsored by the College of IST and IST Student Research Group, will be held from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in the Cybertorium, Room 113 IST Building. The conference is open to law enforcement, researchers, social service workers, activists, students, health care workers and the general population. The keynote speaker will be Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf (R-Montgomery/Bucks), who has represented Pennsylvania’s 12th Senate District since 1978. In 2013, the Pennsylvania State Senate passed legislation introduced by Greenleaf to fight human trafficking in Pennsylvania. The seminar will also feature discussions from the law enforcement and social services perspective.

“What we’re looking at are different ways to get a pulse on the human trafficking problem in the commonwealth,” said Nick Giacobe, a lecturer and research associate at the College of IST, and an adviser to the IST Student Research Group.

Human trafficking is the modern practice of slavery in which victims are forced into labor or sexual servitude under the threat of force or coercion. An estimated $32 billion industry, human trafficking is one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world, second to drug trafficking, according the Montgomery County Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition website. More than 20 million people are believed to be trafficked worldwide, including an estimated 100,000 children prostituted within the United States annually. While experts estimate that there are a minimum of approximately 5,100 to 60,500 people trafficked into and within the U.S. each year, there are thousands of U.S. citizens trafficked domestically, according to the website of Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery/Delaware).

The Human Trafficking seminar, Giacobe said, is one component of a multi-faceted project by the IST Student Research Group with a goal of getting a “better understanding of human trafficking for the law enforcement community.” One of the activities in which they are engaged is examining ads for escort services, and using data capture methods and social network analysis to find relationships between the ads, such as common phone numbers, common language and other factors that may link different ads. After the students refine those methods, Giacobe said, they plan to share their knowledge with law enforcement officials.

“This project, like many undertaken in the College of IST, epitomizes the college’s commitment to engaging students in examining and proposing solutions to real-world problems,” said Peter Forster, an associate dean and senior lecturer at the College of IST, and an adviser to the IST Student Research Group.

Many people aren’t aware that Pennsylvania has a high rate of human trafficking, said Kirsten Glantz, a recent SRA graduate and member of the IST Student Research Group. Pennsylvania is both a pass-through and destination state for those involved in human trafficking, she added. In Pennsylvania, according to Leach’s website, victims of sex and labor trafficking include U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, minors and adults.

“A lot of people think human trafficking is a trans-national issue,” Glantz said. “They don’t understand that it’s happening right here in Pennsylvania.”

Part of what makes human trafficking a tough crime to prosecute, Giacobe said, is that many prostitutes and sex workers are essentially bound to the trade through exploitation and abuse. After luring their victims, many sex traffickers get prostitutes hooked on drugs. The victims, in turn, are hesitant to report the traffickers to police out of fear of being cut off from their drug supply. In addition, human trafficking laws are often ambiguous with lax penalties, often hindering law enforcement from taking steps against predators.

The bill that Greenleaf sponsored, SB 75, which was signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett on July 3 and took effect in September, aims to clearly define human trafficking and involuntary servitude, and increase the penalties for such actions. Under the previous law, trafficking was graded as a second-degree felony unless the person suffered bodily injury or was younger than 18 years of age, then making it a felony of the first degree. SB 75 creates felonies for someone who knowingly patronizes someone who is a victim of trafficking (second degree felony), for nonpayment of wages (less than $2,000 misdemeanor of the third degree, more than $2,000 third degree felony) and for destroying or withholding immigration documents or government identification such as passports (third degree felony). In addition, those who engage in sex trafficking when the victim is a minor will have to register under Megan’s Law as sex offenders.

“Anybody can be a victim,” Andrea Forster said. “We want to educate people and get the conversation out there between all those different groups.”

Those who are interested in attending the Human Trafficking Awareness Seminar can register at


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Last Updated January 15, 2015