Walking through the streets of Queens, New York, with her two best friends at the age of 12, Melanie Thompson was being assessed. Two boys from her neighbourhood – a few years older but familiar faces from middle school – made a calculation and invited the girls indoors.
“It was really innocent at first, we were just joking around. Then they gave us alcohol and I ended up blacking out,” Melanie recalled. “When I woke up, my two girlfriends were gone. I was being raped by one of the boys.”
Melanie tried to find her clothes and escape from the basement. But she was trapped; an older man entered. “He told me I wasn’t going anywhere,” she told The Telegraph, waiving her right to anonymity. “My trafficking had started.”
Human trafficking – including sex and child trafficking – has increased worldwide in recent years. In the United States, it is now the fastest growing organised criminal activity.
“We’re seeing a very high degree of an escalation in sexual violence, and a very high degree of human trafficking taking place in and around New York City and throughout the state,” warned Dorchen Leidholdt, director of the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families, the largest legal services programme for domestic violence victims in the US.
Escape attempts through a window failed. As punishment, Melanie’s face was burnt with cigarettes, a gun held against her head and told that next time she would be killed. “I know where your sister goes to school,” her pimp threatened, “I know where she lives, where she hangs out.”
Melanie was taken to underground strip clubs and raped. “He would make me dance and then sleep with the men who would stand around watching me dance, this was all before the age of 13,” she says.
Between 6pm and 7am, Melanie would be forced to walk the “track” – roads in the US known for sex work. One evening, another girl on the track said: “I feel like I’ve seen your missing poster in the train stations”.
While Melanie was trafficked just over a decade ago, the pandemic has “absolutely” caused a spike in the number of people being trafficked, Ms Leidholdt said.
“It’s the deadly combination of people losing their jobs, increasing poverty, and many victims sheltering in their homes with abusers. We’ve seen a spike in homicide of domestic violence victims,” Ms Leidholdt said.
During April 1 and Sept 30 2020 – a period in which New York experienced state-wide Covid-19 restrictions – the number of situations in which people needed immediate emergency shelter nearly doubled, compared to the same period in the previous year, according to trafficking helpline Polaris.
One New York Police Department officer confirmed Ms Leidholdt’s statements, telling The Telegraph that human trafficking cases and homicides have skyrocketed since Covid-19 lockdowns and are a “major problem” across the state.
But while New York State has “very effective laws” addressing both sex trafficking – a Class B felony which carries a maximum sentence of 25 years imprisonment – the New York Police Department is failing to step up, Ms Leidholdt said.
“Unfortunately, we find that these laws are not being enforced by the police, or that many prosecutors are not enforcing them,” she said. “That has enabled the sex trafficking industry in our city to increase and flourish – especially during the pandemic, when there has been so much poverty, vulnerability, isolation and violence.”
Alexi Meyers, a former prosecutor in human trafficking cases in Brooklyn, said that the lack of police engagement has led to an increase in pimps trafficking children living from foster care homes.
“We’ve noticed an uptick in recruitment of children outside child welfare centres [foster care homes] – that’s due to a shift in policy where the NYPD aren’t arresting the sex buyers, and there’s an attitude of free markets, and like, open air sex markets – where it’s not even hidden anymore out on the street,” Mrs Meyers said.
“One detective told us last year that on Saturday nights the Brooklyn track looks like the Long Island Expressway – a traffic jam of men rolling through to buy sex,” she added.
Ms Leidholdt, who is also a co-founder of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, said communication between human trafficking advocates and the NYPD has deteriorated over the past two years.
“When the pandemic hit, there was so much backsliding in terms of our ability to engage with police. We’ve worked hard to reach the NYPD but we have our work cut out for us, let’s put it that way,” Ms Leidholdt added.
It comes as the NYPD’s crime statistics for August 2022 saw an overall increase by 26 per cent compared to the previous year. Five of the seven major crime categories saw a jump: a 38 per cent increase in robbery, a 34.7 per cent increase in grand larceny, and a 31.1 per cent rise in burglary.
Approached for comment, a spokesperson for the deputy commissioner of public information said the NYPD had shifted its policy in 2017, which has led to overall arrests of prostitution-related charges declining, from 2,682 in 2014 to 193 arrests in 2021. There have been fewer arrests of sex workers – which trafficking advocates support – however, arrests of pimps and buyers have also decreased.
“Arrests of buyers (johns) and promoters (pimps) of sex have also gone down,” the spokesperson said. They added that the NYPD is refocusing efforts to cases involving sex trafficking, indentured servitude and the exploitation of children.
When Melanie was found by the police 13 years ago, she was arrested under a warrant used for runaway children. While waiting for officials, Melanie said she was handcuffed to a metal bench.
“They were trying to intimidate me, saying ‘you’re being arrested for prostitution’. The cops were making jokes. They were saying: ‘How bad do you want to see your mum?’” she recalls. “They left me there for a while. I was banging on the chair that I was attached to and trying to get someone’s attention because I really had to use the bathroom.”
Melanie said she urinated over herself before she was allowed to see officials.
Activists say police have engaged in how to better support victims of trafficking over the past decade, since Melanie’s detention, but victim support and training is still greatly needed. The DCPI spokesperson said the NYPD coordinates with several social service agencies who work with sex workers to help connect them to prompt and supportive services.
Local girls and women account for the largest group who are sex trafficked in New York, according to Ms Leidholdt, particularly those living in vulnerable households or foster care, LGBTQ+ people who are made homeless, and those with histories of sexual abuse.
In Queens, there is also a high incidence of sex trafficking through brothels of Asian women, principally from China and Korea, most of whom are undocumented, Ms Leidholdt said.
“There is significant trafficking from Latin America, highly organised family-based trafficking, typically of young women. They promise vulnerable young women, who are usually in conditions of poverty and teenagers, romance, marriage and support. Then they slowly groom them into sex trafficking – scores of women,” she added.
Mrs Meyers added that “communities often traffic their own”. In 2020, 42 per cent of trafficking victims in New York were brought in by a member of their families, according to Polaris. Thirty-nine per cent were recruited through an intimate partner or marriage proposal.
Ms Thompson, Ms Leidholdt and Mrs Meyers are all calling for better engagement and support services from the NYPD.
“There’s a lot of talk around what we do to keep [victims] safe or get them out, but there’s nothing really that focuses or targets on rehabilitation, so that we do not relapse,” Melanie said.
“Stop the arrest of people who are in prostitution, but keep the criminal penalties against sex buyers and exploiters, including brothel owners,” said Mrs Meyers, adding: “Seeing a 12-year-old child pregnant with a child from an abuser, there’s nothing worse. You need to fight for these women.”