‘Hidden Crisis: Human Trafficking in Our Community’ - LV Foundation awards grants
As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, the Lehigh Valley Community Foundation awarded four Spark grants totaling $50,000 to community organizations addressing human trafficking in Lehigh and Northampton counties. Winners of the grants were announced during
the foundation’s invitation-only program, “Hidden Crisis: Human Trafficking in Our Community,” held at the Third Street Alliance in Easton in partnership with the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley Women United.
The program featured presentations by women’s advocate Shea Rhodes, founder and director of the Villanova Law Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation, and Cat Rojas, a survivor of human trafficking and a leader in the community.
Foundation president and CEO Bernie Story presented the Spark grants, praising the recipients for their creative and collaborative efforts to ignite awareness of the issue of human trafficking. The largest award of $20,000 went to the Truth Home Program, which offers a safe place with a family setting and therapeutic environment for women who are survivors of sex trafficking.
Two grants of $12,500 each were awarded to Crime Victims Council of the Lehigh Valley to help fund its 2018 Lehigh Valley Human Trafficking Conference, and to Valley Against Sex Trafficking for its VAST Survivor Community Center, which provides community-based, peer-led support to survivors of human trafficking.
KidsPeace received $5,000 for its Enhanced Clinical Trauma and Life Skills Program for female adolescent victims of trafficking and trauma.
As one of the evening’s speakers, Rhodes talked of her journey from serving as Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney (2003-2012), when she developed the Human Trafficking Working Group to investigate and prosecute human traffickers, to opening her own law firm that works with survivors of commercial sexual exploitation.
“I’ll tell you why I care,” she said, explaining that after eight years as a prosecutor she needed a break, so she moved to the DA’s pretrial program. “I was handed 28 files on women with multiple convictions for prostitution—women the criminal justice system had failed. [Because] the more times you are convicted, the more severe your punishment, women were facing state prison time.”
One woman had 68 convictions, according to Rhodes, who asked, “Why do we do that? Harsher punishments are clearly not a deterrent.”
In 2014, she founded the Villanova Law Institute to work to improve the Pennsylvania legal system’s response to commercial sexual exploitation. Citing Pennsylvania’s Act 105 (2014), she noted that the law “criminalizes a broad spectrum of conduct and indiscriminately applies to traffickers, buyers, and facilitators alike.”
Despite both federal and state laws against trafficking, selling and buying sex, Rhodes said there is still a disparity in policing. “There were 39 arrests for prostitution in 2016 in the Lehigh Valley, but none for buying sex. Only four out of 42 counties in Pennsylvania that reported arrests to the AOPC [Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts] targeted the demand for commercial sexual exploitation by arresting buyers more frequently than sellers.”
Rhodes told her audience, “I’m on a crusade. I want sex buying to be its own separate crime. You can arrest sex traffickers every day, but we need to stop the market.”
Commenting that there is “no such thing as a child prostitute; she is a victim,” Rhodes said she wrote Senate Bill 554 now awaiting action in Harrisburg. The bill would establish a Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund, and in juvenile matters regarding prostitution would provide for immunity and dependency in lieu of delinquency.
The program on sex trafficking was the Lehigh Valley Community Foundation’s fifth of six 50th anniversary Spark Grant Celebrations. The foundation works with donors to help them connect with and fund causes that matter.