EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a three-part series that will provide an in-depth look at the in-roads of sex trafficking in Lycoming County, the easy access provided by Route 15 and resources for youth trafficking victims.
WILLIAMSPORT – It’s hard to imagine something as pervasive as sex trafficking taking root in Lycoming County, but for victims and activists, the problem has been ignored for far too long.
Born in Williamsport and shuffled from home to home throughout the county, Lynaugh Bobst made it through her entire childhood as a victim of sex trafficking.
“I showed every marker for severe abuse and the services weren’t there,” Bobst said. “If we can break down the stigma, people are going to be more comfortable talking about their experiences … then we can get services and we can get the resources to fund those services and then people can heal – we deserve to heal.”
Sex trafficking is a $150 billion industry that grew from a measly $34 billion in just about 10 years. It reaches across the globe and Lycoming County is no exception.
“The majority of what we see here in our area, is not the hollywood version … what we’re seeing here is – especially in areas of poverty … this is a way for them to increase their income,” said Heather Shnyder, education specialist at Transitions in Lewisburg. “You can sell a little girl over and over and over again.”
There are two types of trafficking in Central Pennsylvania: Passthrough traffic via the Route 15 corridor, often bringing victims from areas such as New York through Williamsport, and familial trafficking bred within local communities by friends or family members of victims.
Bobst’s primary abuser was her mother, who trafficked her in the neighborhoods of the roughly 50 homes she lived in during her childhood, including South Williamsport, Montoursville and Newberry. She was often traded for drugs or other innocuous items.
“Being somebody with a background of trafficking and sexual abuse, particularly perpetrated within the household, you don’t have a whole lot of self-worth and you feel like there’s something wrong with you becuase it happened – which is not true. It’s just not true,” Bobst said.
After becoming an adult, Bobst, 25, sought the help she needed and through years of therapy began to heal. She now attends Pennsylvania College of Technology and is on the board of Silent No More, a local non-profit founded by psychologist Michael Gillum, who represented Andrew Fisher, a victim of Jerry Sandusky.
Building local resources
Trying to find cohesive community resources able to deal with the severe trauma felt by a person who has been trafficked is hard, Bobst said.“The system is so overwhelmed,”
As a child, she reached out to social services, but said she was told that her chances of recovery would be better if she waited until she turned 18 to leave home, because the foster care system would be worse than her current system of abuse.
Years of counseling and self-healing methods have brought Bobst to where she is today, as an advocate for victims of sex trafficking and abuse, people often unable to speak about their experiences, she said.
Local resources have come a long way in recent years, Shnyder said. As the industry grew, so did education efforts and dedicated coalitions in the region.
The Lycoming County Sex Trafficking Response Team was founded in 2011 by Susan Mathias, Debbie Colton, then District Judge Jim Sortman and county Judge Joy McCoy.
Sortman, now retired, said it wasn’t long before he realized a girl before his bench was most likely in danger of being trafficked.
“I thought, ‘How many times has that gone on in other homes?’ ” he said. “She was being sucked in by a guy who could make things look pretty rosy.”
As education began to increase, so did reports of sex trafficking. Sortman, also a retired police officer, said he never knew what sex trafficking looked like in local communities.
“There was no term for human trafficking … these were prostitutes,” Sortman said.
The response team did several trainings with law enforcement and seminars for churches and medical facilities.
Colton, founder of Oasis of Hope, an area safe-house for trafficking victims, said the response team was the “groundbreaking mark of human trafficking awareness in this area.”
But despite the formation of the group, and Oasis of Hope, resources still are slim in the area.
The response team reorganized as the Lycoming County Sex Trafficking Outreach Team in an effort to build renewed awareness and build resources throughout the county, said the team’s current chairperson Adam Welteroth.
The WYCA’s Wise Options program also is a safe haven for local victims of sex trafficking, according to Amber Morningstar, the program director.
Morningstar said she hopes to see more awareness throughout the region so that more people will reach out for help.
When victims are afraid to speak up, it becomes “harder to identify, prove, prosecute” their trafficker, she said.
Wise options provides respite and recovery for victims, as well as counseling and transport back to the individuals home.
The outreach team is made up of experts ranging from medical personnel and law enforcement to social services and psychiatrists.
Welteroth said the team’s goal is to educate and raise awareness among the general public.
But breaking through to victims of sex trafficking and a culture ignorant of its effect in their neighborhoods is a steep hill to climb.
It doesn’t happen here
When Sortman was asked to be on the sex trafficking response team he couldn’t imagine that such a team was needed in this area.
“This is actually far, far deeper than anyone ever knew,” he said. “It’s almost like the unwanted child you didn’t want to admit you have.”
The misconception that prostitution and sex trafficking were not connected was common among law enforcement, Sortman said. Education has helped to cut down on the stigma, he said, but added that it is not gone entirely.
Dealing with apathetic ignorance throughout the region is frustrating for Shnyder. Shortly after Shnyder began manning the Transitions hotline for abused victims she took the first call from an individual who admitted being a victim of trafficking.
“Trafficking is the largest growing criminal enterprise in the world,” Shnyder said. Over the past 10 years it has grown from a $34 billion industry to $150 billion worldwide, according to the Department of Justice.
In addition, it reports that between 130,000 and 300,000 minor girls are trafficked throughout the United States each year, a large portion coming through Pennsylvania.
The issue is pervasive throughout the region, Colton said, but added that many people, especially in places of authority, don’t want to admit it. She has spent years working to educate people and calling local leaders, but said she received little response.
“Now you know, you don’t have an excuse,” Colton said. “And you need to do something … because this problem is a huge problem.”
How to reach victims
Abuse and sex trafficking for Bobst began as early as she can remember. Most people forced into sex trafficking, many as minors, can’t see themselves as victims. Many believe they deserve what is happening, she said.
Even after victims have been discovered, it can take years for them to build a life of their own.
“The therapy was the cornerstone to figure out the coping skills I needed to figure out who I was,” Bobst said. “Once you have some tools in your toolkit it starts to get a little easier and you start to enjoy life and build connections with people on a basis of health and trust.”
Oasis of Hope works with its participants for at least two years to help them achieve a normal life.
“She’s just living through hell in a way that we can’t even imagine,” said Alana Opdahl, program director.
The safe house brings in trafficked women from around the county who are working to begin a new life. It begins by breaking through the walls set up by victims to deal with their trauma, Opdahl said.
Introducing healthy living habits, helping her find an apartment, a job or schooling options are important to providing much-needed structure.
“Once we’ve created this foundation of life skills … ‘How do you want to use those gifts and skills?’ ” Opdahl said. “We’re giving her the tools with which to go out of our program well and find employment.”