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I was sitting at my kitchen table on a hot August afternoon in when I got a call from a I didn't recognize. I answered, hoping that it was my sister, whom I hadn't talked to for several weeks. This wasn't entirely unusual — Maddie was addicted to heroin and would sometimes disappear for days or weeks. As always when I hadn't heard from her, I was worried. But it wasn't my sister's voice I heard on the line, it was a man who introduced himself as a Brooklyn police detective.

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I paced as he explained that my sister had been arrested. She was safe, he assured me, though withdrawing from heroin. He emphasized that I needed to pick her up as soon as she was arraigned. I needed to put her directly in a car and take her out of New York City.

He was vague when I asked what was going on, and I didn't bother asking my sister when he finally put her on the phone. I thought it was because she was dopesick that her voice sounded so flat, a slab of gray slate with a thin crack of despondence running through it.

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It wasn't until the next day when he called back that the detective finally explained his urgency: My sister had been sex trafficked by some "bad guys," and it wasn't safe for her in New York. What I know of my sister's experience there is like scraps of paper snatched from the wind as they fluttered by, each one written on by a different hand.

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Maddie's trip was arranged by a woman she bought drugs from in St. Albans, though its purpose is unclear: Maddie told my mom at the time she'd be seeing a Broadway show. She told me later she thought she was going to make fake credit cards.

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She told our sister Maura that she was muling heroin. After she'd been there for a week, she called her best friend and asked her to come get her.

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She said that when she got to New York everything had seemed fine, but now the men she was with were giving her drugs to make her stay. She didn't know where she was but said she'd call back soon with an address. A week later she called her friend again.

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This time she was frantic, screaming. She had grabbed a phone, run to the bathroom and locked herself inside. Her friend could hear pounding on the door as Maddie begged to be picked up, but my sister didn't know where she was. The detective explained to me that Maddie had been held in a motel room by people who had taken her photo, posted it on a website used to advertise commercial sex, and coerced her into having sex with men who responded to the ad by withholding heroin and threatening her with withdrawal.

She was arrested when the police pulled over her traffickers and found her in the car.

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They used the drug paraphernalia in her pocket as an excuse to arrest her: They knew she was in trouble. Because there was a warrant out for Maddie's arrest, she was not released after her arraignment.

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Instead she went from being held captive in a motel room where she was forced to have sex with strangers to being jailed for six weeks at Rikers Island before she was extradited to Vermont. The first time I visited her at Rikers she cried as she told me she couldn't talk about what happened to her.

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When I got that phone call six years ago, I thought sex trafficking was something that happened to people in other countries or to women who were brought to this country to work in massage parlors. I had no idea it was something that could happen to my sister.

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In part that's because I didn't understand what sex trafficking is. The federal Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act defines it as "a commercial sex act What's the difference between sex trafficking and what's commonly referred to as prostitution?

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Force, fraud and coercion. Prostitution, also called commercial sex work, is when an adult voluntarily exchanges sex for money or something else of value.

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Sex trafficking is prostitution that an adult does not choose to participate in. Minors cannot legally consent to exchanging sex for something of value, whether that be cash, drugs, food or a place to sleep, so anytime a minor participates in commercial sex they're being trafficked.

Sex trafficking is happening throughout the United States, including in Vermont. If you believe you or someone you know is being trafficked in Vermont, call to get help. If you are a trafficking victim, this will not trigger the involvement of law enforcement unless you want it to.

Paper statistics

Police, prosecutors and advocates I spoke with described the problem as "big" and "sizable," even "rampant" in the state, but I was warned that what little data there are don't reflect the scope of the problem; sex trafficking is ificantly underreported. A federal grant application submitted last year by the statewide Human Trafficking Task Force shows that the of victims who received services in Vermont jumped by almost percent between andfrom 31 to people. The of sex trafficking investigations doubled in that same period of time, from 31 to And the of prosecutions nearly tripled, from two to seven.

One of the defendants was Diheim Youngwho in became the first person to be convicted of sex trafficking in Vermont.

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Later this month, Brian Folks is expected to be the first accused sex trafficker to go before a Vermont jury. Folks has been charged with trafficking five adult women and one minor, though there are many more identified and unidentified victims, according to Abigail Averbach, who was the lead prosecutor on the case before leaving the U. Attorney's Office earlier this year.

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Both Folks and Young were charged with sex and drug trafficking. Both allegedly used heroin to coerce girls and women into the sex trade. The definition of coercion includes "threats of serious harm"; two separate court cases in established that opioid withdrawal qualifies as serious harm.

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And the sex trade is profitable, "far more lucrative than drug trafficking," according to Cindy Maguire, an assistant Vermont attorney general. On January 3,a Vermont teenager was found murdered in a Bronx apartment. Christal Jones, 16, was one of more than a dozen Vermont teenagers and women who had been brought to New York as part of what was described at the time as a "prostitution and heroin ring.

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There is nothing to indicate that heroin was a part of Holland's operation, but the girls under Rodriguez's control, including Jones, did use heroin, and he was ultimately convicted of giving it to one of them. It was really new for Vermont, and The state was one of the last in the country to enact its own human trafficking statute, in Even then it did so not because there was a perceived problem — "the driving force was the fact that Vermont did not [yet] have a statute," according to Maguire.

In the decade after Jones' death, Colchester Police Lt. Jim Roy would frequently run into situations that he said had "all the earmarks" of commercial sex work at area hotels. At the time many viewed prostitution as a "victimless crime," according to Roy, a transaction between two consenting adults that, while illegal, wasn't hurting anyone.

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But this idea outraged him. He said he began having "heated conversations" about the fact that "there are victims all down the line of this.

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It was simply a job choice. And in Vermont When I asked Heather Ross, a former assistant U. I do think the opiate addiction crisis has created this horrible situation where people can be so easily controlled by their addiction because the addiction itself is so powerful.

But do I also think we were missing it? I think If any of the women Roy encountered were being trafficked, they weren't reporting it.

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But the crime is rarely reported. Most people who experience it aren't even aware of what sex trafficking is, let alone that it's happening to them.

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The language they use to describe their experience is the lingo of commercial sex — the life, the game, hustling, going on dates. They see themselves as prostitutes, not victims of sex trafficking. You only really need to beat somebody one time.

And the rest of the time, you can just threaten to do that again. And so it looks and starts to feel like choice. Stigma is also a barrier to reporting. They've normalized the experience, they're ashamed of the experience, they feel guilt. That's all part of the traffickers' manipulation as well.

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Because sex trafficking is not reported, it must be discovered, and because no one was looking for it in Vermont in the decade after Christal Jones' death, no one was finding it. ZIP: 61484

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