More than 350 first responders, teachers, religious leaders and concerned citizens turned out Monday to learn more about the impact of human trafficking in Pittsburgh.
According to federal law, anyone under the age of 18 who is caught participating in the commercial sex trade is assumed to be a human trafficking victim. Trafficking is also defined as compelling a person by force, fraud or deception into forced labor, domestic servitude or sexual commerce.
Sponsored by the FBI Citizens Academy Alumni Association, the human trafficking open house at the Andy Warhol Museum was well-attended by local groups and organizations who have been seeking to raise awareness of a problem that most people associate with other countries.
"I knew it existed, but it's always been an international thing to me," said Chatham University student Rebecca Pell of Forward, who visited the expo with three classmates to gather research for a class about the Holocaust and human rights. "I had absolutely no idea there were victims in Pittsburgh. We're at home. Things like that don't happen at home."
Ms. Pell and her friends were exactly the kind of people that organizers hoped would turn out to the event.
"We're really focusing on the social services this time," said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Brad Orsini about the third annual open house. "We're looking for anybody who could be witnessing human trafficking first-hand."
Hand-in-hand with the educational aspect is the urgency to raise awareness about the issue locally.
"One of the big things we can do is to educate people," said Sister Jeanette Bussen of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Baden.
Though local experts don't know how many human trafficking victims there are in Pittsburgh, they want people to know how to look for the telltale signs -- bars on windows, massage parlors open all night, people coming and going frequently in a residential area, people who seem to not be in control of themselves.
"The biggest shock for me is that I need to change my perception of prostitution and not blame the victim," said Caitlin Miller of Natrona Heights, another of the Chatham students. "I'm not used to thinking that way about prostitution."
"I could not believe something so horrendous was going on in the United States," said Diana Fletcher of Murrysville, a concerned citizen who has helped to raise funds for two local groups, the Project to End Human Trafficking and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Trafficking Coalition. "Once I knew about it, I couldn't 'unknow' it."
Rob Barr of the FBI citizens academy said he often speaks about the issue to friends and neighbors in Mt. Lebanon. At first, he said, they don't believe him.
"They think it's something happening in other parts of the country," he said. "They say 'Not in Pittsburgh.' But you can go into any bus station and see the young people being approached. It can happen, and in more ways than the movies portray."
The FBI accepts tips on human trafficking through its hotline at 412-432-4122. For more information on helping the agencies devoted to stamping out human trafficking, visit livinginliberty.org.
Janice Crompton: email@example.com or 412-263-1159.