“Sex trafficking? We’re in Maine,” Cumberland County Deputy District Attorney Megan Elam said, describing the sentiment among local law enforcement just a few years ago. “There’s a little shame going around among prosecutors and police officers about how naive we were.”
Sex trafficking has been a little-understood crime in Maine, for a variety of reasons. Victims may be reluctant to talk to police for fear of prosecution, or may not recognize that they are victims, instead believing that the people who are exploiting them are boyfriends.
And because Maine’s population is small and relatively rural, trafficking has largely gone unnoticed by prosecutors, law enforcement and social service workers who pictured sex trafficking as large-scale operations involving many women who are brought from overseas and exploited in big cities. Until recently, they didn’t realize that sex trafficking often looks more like what happened to Waterman, a local woman tricked by a persuasive man who gave her drugs and brought her to an unfamiliar city.
That has started to change. Preble Street, the Portland social services agency, last month received $400,000 in federal funding to identify and help victims of sex trafficking in Maine. A bill introduced in the Legislature by Republican Rep. Amy Volk of Scarborough sought to help victims of sex trafficking by suspending prostitution convictions. The bill, which has become something of a political football between legislative Republicans and Democrats, was rejected recently by the Legislative Council, one of nearly 300 bills that were not allowed, but Volk was encouraged to resubmit it for consideration.
The secretive nature of the crime means there are few reliable numbers to show exactly how prevalent sex trafficking is in Maine, and what it might look like.
“We have some numbers, but they’re not great,” said Jon Bradley, associate director of Preble Street, one of the key authors of the agency’s grant application to the Department of Justice.