Child exploitation, sex trafficking a growing problem in western Massachusetts

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Catherine Sykes’ daughter was just 3-years-old when she was sexually abused by a man she thought she could trust.

“She came to me one night and told me that my son’s father had inappropriately touched her one day while I was at work. He had pulled her pants down and touched her bottom.”

Sykes said her daughter kept that heart wrenching secret to herself for over 2-years. She finally gained the courage to tell her mom what had happened, after Catherine’s boyfriend went to jail for domestic abuse.

She described it as the toughest conversation she has ever had with her daughter, and one that she’ll never forget. “It was confusing, it was scary… I was more scared for her and her future and how it would affect her.”

Catherine and her daughter’s father immediately reported the abuse to Greenfield Police. “The police came and did a report, child services came in as well and did their investigation. We first were interviewed at the District Attorney’s office for her first forensic interview after that had happened. Then we got involved in the therapy, we went to a support group with other kids, as well. About a year later, she came forward with more details, so she went for a second interview at the Children’s Advocacy Center.”

The Children’s Advocacy Center works with victims and families of child abuse and sexual exploitation. 

When a victim goes to the Children’s Advocacy Center, they’re interviewed by a multi-disciplinary team that consists of DCF, police, prosecutors and a forensic interviewer. They’re interviewed by one person in a room, while everyone else is watching the interview in a separate room, allowing the victim to only have to tell their story once.

The center also provides medical and mental health services, to help victims start the recovery process.

Irene Woods is the Executive Director of the Children’s Advocacy Center for Franklin County and the North Quabbin. “It’s so traumatizing because 98% of the time child abuse is from someone you know, it’s not by the lurking stranger. When you’re violated by somebody you trust, that has life long repercussions for you.”

Susan Loehn is the Executive Director of the Children’s Advocacy Center in Hampshire and Franklin Counties. 

She told the I-Team the cases they’ve seen locally range from sexual abuse to sex trafficking, and oftentimes, family members are involved. “In Hampshire County, there was a mother who sold her 15-year-old daughter for $2,000 to an older man, I think he was in his 40s. The man came up from another state and paid the $2,000, and he wanted to marry this young lady. The young woman went off with him for about a week, and then she called her mother and said she didn’t want to be with him anymore, so the mother called the police. The local police became involved and they tracked the man down to another state and the young woman was found.”

Despite what had happened, the case went nowhere. “At first she gave a statement, but in the end the case went nowhere because she turned 16 and she would not testify. That’s a problem with these cases for prosecution.”

Loehn said when the abuse involves family members, getting the victim to testify can be challenging.

She described it as one of the most difficult cases she had ever dealt with. “That was probably the most shocking case that we’ve heard of locally. It turns out the mother had been prostituting her daughter for at least a couple of years, and the men would come into the daughter’s bedroom and have sex with her.”

As disturbing as these cases are, they’re becoming increasingly common.

According to data the I-Team obtained from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 36 cases of human trafficking have been reported in Massachusetts so far this year. At least 11 of those cases involved minors.

State Police Captain Pi Downsborough is a member of the State Police High Risk Victim Unit. She told the I-Team, children and teens are often taken advantage of by people who are masters at manipulation. “These exploiters are so good at morphing into whatever that girl needs in her life.”

Captain Downsborough said sometimes the exploiter is a family member that the child wants to make happy. Other times, the exploiter can pose as a boyfriend to gain the victim’s trust, or as a friend who cares about them.

In many cases, the manipulation is so powerful, the victims don’t even realize they’re victims. “If you have a victim of trafficking, are you even calling police or do you even know they’re being victimized? It’s part of their manipulation and coercion. They say things like, ‘I’m doing it because I love them.’ There’s a myriad of things they’re going through.” 

Captain Downsborough said the recruitment strategies have also been changing. Many predators are now using online social media sites to connect with children, making it even harder for parents and police to stop it. “I’ve seen a lot of changes in the last several years with the Internet, and the way things have progressed there have impacted it for sure. The recruiting that goes on social media sites is unmatched, and that’s where most of our kids live these days, right?”

She said that’s why knowing exactly what’s going on in your child’s life can be critical. “If you have that solid communication and ongoing involvement with your kid and are aware of things, that’s your best defense.”

As for the sexual abuse that happened to Catherine Sykes’ daughter, she believes their strong relationship is the reason her daughter eventually came forward.

After years of therapy and healing, Catherine now describes her daughter as a happy, healthy 9-year-old girl, who still smiles despite everything she has been through. “Our family is a lot of stronger now, and I believe our bond and connection is a lot stronger than it has ever been.”

If you suspect someone is a victim of child exploitation, there are several resources available.

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