Combating sex trafficking: Coalition hosting town hall meetings to shine light on issue

KAILUA-KONA — More voices are speaking out against sex trafficking on the Big Island in hopes of finding a way to stop its spread.

The Hawaii Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking has begun hosting islandwide town hall meetings in an effort to educate the community about the issue and newly released data on sex trafficking that occurs on the Big Island.

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“It’s just kind of a grassroots thing on our efforts,” said coalition founder Melody Stone. “It’s a great way to raise awareness, to talk story and informs people about what the issue looks like in Hawaii.”

The focus is to look at positive strategies, she added. There’s tons of stuff people can do — even little things like talking about it can make a difference.

The town hall meetings began after Arizona State University’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research and Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women released a two-part study detailing how individuals purchased sex online and various statistics related to interviews with 22 victims from Oahu and the Big Island.

Research showed many of the online sex buyers were Hawaii residents and many of the victims were local women.

A third study is currently being conducted and is expected to be complete this fall. The study entails a large survey of youth and adults in Hawaii receiving supportive services and their experiences of exploitation.

Prior to the release of the study, Stone said, she felt the coalition’s message was falling on deaf ears. People either weren’t aware of it or intentionally looked the other way.

The research, Stone said, sent shockwaves throughout the Oahu and Big Island communities.

“It’s research-based and it’s valid,” she said of the studies. “It’s helped get more people mobilized and involved.”

TOWN HALL MEETINGS

The first town hall Stone hosted was in January in Ocean View. The second was in Kailua-Kona at West Hawaii Civic Center on May 2.

At each, Stone has led the discussion, talking about eight sectors identified by the coalition as areas where people can make a difference. The sectors are at-risk community, education, criminal justice and law enforcement, faith-based community, health care, business technology and media.

“We always want to start by believing no matter where you’re working, because most of the time it’s true,” Stone said for all the sectors.

She listed ideas to improve educating the community about human trafficking and ways to stop it. Among them were strengthening the neighborhood watch program, educating students on human trafficking, encouraging collaboration between law enforcement and other service providers, training in the hospitality industry and documenting at-risk individuals when they come in for health care.

Ideas from the group included having a monthly movie night featuring a documentary on human trafficking. There were also ideas on ways to strengthen their reach on social media.

“I want people to leave here feeling hopeful and empowered and there’s something you can do to make a difference,” Stone said at the Kona meeting.

Melanie Mann was one of the participants at the meeting. The Kailua-Kona mother said she has been paying attention to the topic of sex trafficking for the past two to three years.

“Not because of what was going on in the community, but around the world,” Mann said.

Mann said she started to see articles related to human trafficking coming out of Oahu and remembers being shocked. She didn’t learn about the Big Island’s issues until she was helping a friend’s daughter write a speech on the topic.

“As a community, what are we missing? What are we not paying attention to?” Mann asked.

With a heightened sense of awareness to the human trafficking issue, Mann said, she notices more of the crime and violence that occurs in the community.

“Things that didn’t used to be OK is suddenly OK,” she said. “I truly believe it’s a moral issue. I see it as a moral decay.”

Mann has told other mothers about the town hall meetings.

“It made me feel like there’s power in my hands,” she said of the meeting. “This is going to be a fight.”

She believes that if more mothers can come together, more can be done. She talks about human trafficking at least every day.

“Something is moving in the hearts of people, but we have to ignite it,” Mann said. “Just the thought of it should make your stomach turn.”

Mann said it’s going to take people taking a stand to stop human trafficking.

“Everybody’s got to do their part,” Mann said. “I really believe people will get involved because there is a love of people on this island. I just think most people don’t know it’s happening here.”

The next town hall meeting is scheduled for 6-8 p.m. May 23 at Mana Christian Ohana Community Room, 67-1182 Lindsey Road, in Waimea.

WHAT THE STUDY SAYS

Overall, the study showed one in 11 men in Hawaii searched online to pay for sex, and most of them were local buyers.

Part one of the sex trafficking study looked at online sex buyers and the response to sex-buying demand. Advertisements for sex were posted on the online classifieds site Backpage.com for Oahu and the Big Island.

According to the study, two “normative sex advertisements” were developed by researchers to solicit buyers on the Big Island.

“A normative sex advertisement is an online prostitution advertisement that has language, art and photos similar to most of the other advertisements in the region,” the study states. “Two normative advertisements were developed based on observations of the other advertisements on Backpage.com in the Hawaii market.”

Eight days after the study was completed, Backpage.com was shut down by the FBI in April 2018 as it was a leading forum for prostitution ads, including those depicting prostitution of children.

An ad posted on Big Island Backpage.com on March 23, 2018, received 206 contacts, 107 calls and 99 texts within a 24-hour period, according to the study. Almost 60% of the contacts were from an 808 area code.

An ad was also posted on March 30, 2018. Various Big Island locations were included in the body of the texts sent to the ad: Kona, Hilo, Waikoloa, Mauna Lani and Waimea. Big Island locations were also included in the body of the texts sent to the Oahu ad posted on March 30, 2018.

Dr. Dominque Roe-Sepowitz, associate professor at Arizona State University and director of the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research at ASU, said those areas were provided to see if the “sex seller would meet them or if they were nearby.” Locations included Kona, Waikoloa Village, Hilo, Puna and Big Island.

Roe-Sepowitz couldn’t say how the obtained data ranked the Big Island on a national level in the sex trafficking problem.

“We can only say that the sex buyer problem is serious — that there are hundreds of people each day looking to buy sex in Hilo,” Roe-Sepowitz said.

Part two of the study looked at childhood experiences, drugs and grooming among 22 survivors of sex trafficking. According to the research, 77.3% of participants were native Hawaiian. Of the 18 interviews conducted, 77.8% of the participants were under the age of 18 and in school in Hawaii when they were sex trafficked.

INVESTIGATING SEX TRAFFICKING

Hawaii Police Lt. Reynold Kahalewai with Area II Vice Section defined human trafficking as anybody being forced to perform work against their will, which includes sex and labor. Hawaii Revised Statutes 712.1200 details various offenses related to prostitution, promoting prostitution and sex trafficking.

Kahalewai said police perform about six prostitution stings a year in West Hawaii. Overall, he has not seen an increasing trend related to sex trafficking since 2017 when he was made lieutenant in the Vice unit.

“It’s here,” he said. “Like anything illegal, of course, there’s always concern.”

Kahalewai said previous investigations show prostitutes are coming from out-of-state.

“Even though they’re getting arrested, we still do an investigation to determine if they’re being trafficked,” he said.

One ad posted by police can generate multiple arrests for either soliciting or promoting prostitution. Kahalewai said many times they get individuals who are just curious.

However, once someone is caught, Kahalewai said, they find innovative ways to not get caught in the future.

“Ever since Backpage went down people have found various ways to solicit online,” he said.

The lieutenant wasn’t surprised by the statistics the ASU study provided on online sex purchase. Kahalewai indicated the department also posts advertisements in hopes of catching individuals committing sex trafficking and prostitution crimes. However, Kahalewai said police have yet to arrest anyone connected to sex trafficking.

“There is an overlap with narcotics and prostitution,” he said. “It’s challenging — same with narcotics.”

Officials at Hawaii County Prosecutor’s Office also see the effects drugs have on the community. When methamphetamine first started appearing on the Big Island in the 1990s, First Deputy Prosecutor Dale Ross said, it was common to see dealers with access to young girls and boys.

“From speaking to recovering addicts, we learned that the addiction was so powerful that people were willing to do anything to obtain the drug,” Ross said.

Vice reports of drug search warrants, Ross added, often showed houses with pornography and experts say sexual promiscuity was a common effect of the drug.

“We were also seeing sexual assault reports in the context of extremely dysfunctional family dynamics with addicted adults who exploited the children in their own families,” Ross said. “We have been very concerned about this for a long time.”

PROSECUTING SEX TRAFFICKING

Ross said sex trafficking is difficult to prosecute on the Big Island, adding the prosecutor’s office sees cases involving residents. Victims who are brought on island are also taken off island quickly so it’s more difficult for law enforcement to capture.

“People arrested after police respond to sex ads do not report being trafficked,” Ross said. “Even if the situation seems highly suspicious for sex trafficking, victims post bail and if they appear in court, pay a fine. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be prepared for the case when a sex trafficking is reported.”

In fiscal year 2017-18, the prosecutor’s office charged 18 petty misdemeanor violations connected to engaging in or agreeing or offering to engage in sexual conduct with another person in return for a fee; or paying, agreeing to pay or offering to pay a fee to another to engage in sexual conduct.

Twelve were from South Hilo and six from Kona. Nine pleaded guilty or no contest and were fined. Four failed to appear in court and bench warrants were issued. The remainder had other dispositions.

It has been difficult to catch and convict solicitors of prostitution and sex traffickers. Police conducting these operations tell the prosecutor’s office there are countermeasures taken by potential offenders to identify and thwart police operations.

“The cost for running these operations are high and safety is always a concern,” Ross said. “We agree with the strategy to target consumers of commercial sex, particularly sexually exploited minors under 18 years old.”

The best thing people can do, Ross said, is to do their best to accurately report their observations if they are suspicious of something.

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“We need our schools to teach all students, and our workplaces to teach all employees about what to look for and report, and to set standards of behavior that reject the commercial exploitation of people,” Ross said.

While Ross didn’t have a comment on the efficacy of the Arizona State University study, she assumed the team from ASU was knowledgeable about how to do such studies.

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