Atlantic City is a crossroads for the wrong reasons sometimes. The lure of cheap motels and rooming houses, the easy reach of major highways and the promise of quick money has led Atlantic County to a dubious distinction of a state hotbed of human trafficking. Indeed, counties such as Camden and Essex often see their underbelly migrating to Atlantic City.
As a step towards overcoming this problem, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority approved a $233,945 grant October 20 to the Volunteers of America Delaware Valley to launch a pilot program. If successful, the program could serve as a model for other parts of the state, said CRDA Board Chairman Robert Mulcahy, according to the Press of Atlantic City.
“New Jersey is considered particularly vulnerable to the proliferation of human trafficking due to its dense population and location along the I-95 corridor,” Mulcahy said. “Our action confirms our commitment to combating the vulnerabilities of poverty and the lack of opportunity in Atlantic City and its surrounding areas.”
The program will spotlight community training, juvenile diversion, outreach and support services for victims.
“Traffickers take advantage of the area’s many hotels and use force, drugs and coercion to prey on vulnerable victims,” said CRDA Executive Director Matt Doherty. “These funds will allow VOA to establish a robust outreach to identify and assist victims ensnared in domestic or transnational trafficking in partnership with law enforcement.”
Volunteers of America has assisted victims in Atlantic City for about five years, using a pre-dawn street outreach team. Such teams see “a darker, unspoken truth: many victims of human trafficking are often mistaken for prostitution. The southern end of Pacific Avenue paints a bleak picture, with young women walking out of motels and rooming houses, controlled by handlers on each block who intently watch their every move,” the group said in its proposal to the CRDA.
The organization must identify potential victims, said Amanda Leese, senior vice president of VOA’s Safe Return and Navigator programs. “We’ll provide the necessary social service supports to these individuals and then leverage relationships with law enforcement to bring justice on behalf of those victimized by their perpetrators.”
Under the program, VOA’s primary focal point will be to expand victim services and training through increased networking with local schools, law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies to eliminate traffickers. In addition, VOA will provide community-based training sessions with law enforcement and social service agencies to create awareness and address misconceptions.
If past success is an indication, the program could work with 10 victims per year.
VOA will also collaborate with federal, state, county and local law enforcement in Atlantic City and provide quarterly reports to the state attorney general and the FBI’s Human Trafficking Task Force.