“Traffickers thrive in secrecy.”

Liz Stein is an advocate and mentor for those who escaped human trafficking, working at the Support Center for Child Advocates.

She’s also a survivor.

“In fact, I didn’t realize what happened to me was human trafficking until my abusers were arrested some two decades later.” said Stein at a press event in the capitol today.

Experts and organizations swarmed Harrisburg to share data on the fight against human trafficking. Informational tables were set in the East Wing, a press conference took place at 11am, and a panel of advocates and survivors answered detailed questions in the afternoon.

A common theme emerged in all the events; how can we help survivors?

“In order to heal, survivors need access to trauma informed mental health care, safe housing, legal advocacy, education and employment opportunities, and community reintegration,” said Stein.

The panel of survivors and professionals who work with legal or social services discussed the obstacles to getting these services. For example, there is a minimal amount of therapists trained in processing trauma.

Experts also highlighted legal assistance as a hurdle; noting that survivors may fear being prosecuted for crimes they were forced to commit while being trafficked. Raising awareness of the legal rights that human trafficking survivors have might help connect people to resources.

There is more than external knowledge at play though.

“They've been exploited, where they've been abused, often physically and sexually, so they're often very reluctant to come forward and to tell their story and to cooperate with law enforcement,” said Michelle Henry, Pennsylvania’s Attorney General.

As was Stein’s case, survivors may not even identify their experience as human trafficking. Predators rely heavily on manipulation and psychological conditioning to control victims. These tactics combined with a lack of awareness in communities leads to tragedies.

How can survivors define human trafficking, and in turn seek help, if they never learned it existed when living in normal society?

Knowledge dismantles lies.

“There are some people out there that still think ‘well not in my town’. And it’s important to know it and accept it,” said Henry.

In 2022, there were 183 human trafficking offenses filed in the state of Pennsylvania, reported by the court system.

Research shows human trafficking is not limited by race, gender, geography, or other demographics. However, those already living in at-risk situations have higher statistics of being trafficked by predators. Ex; children in foster care have higher risk of being trafficked.

Education and awareness is the solution.

“What if we were able to readily identify the societal symptoms of trauma?” said Stein. "What if we knew what human trafficking looks like in the lives of survivors, if we were able to intervene early on, to give them the support and skills they need to rebuild their lives."

One school program is helping to close the gap in awareness.

State trooper Matt Harris founded the program ‘Character, Be About It’ in 2013. Recently, he has added a human trafficking education component for 6th to 9th graders.

“The kids are really excited to learn more about that. And then they will spread that on to their other friends and family members. And so we're hoping that that that domino effect takes place.”

The course takes a specific look at how to be safe on social media, but also educates on some of the basic pitfalls and tactics that can lead to dangerous trafficking situations.

The program is being taught in school districts in the Erie area, along with Butler county and several other districts. Soon, Pittsburgh will also teach it in schools.

It is one step in preparing the next generation to build safer and more equipped communities and families.

“I do not believe people are intentionally ignorant to the subject of human trafficking,” said Stein. "Rather there is not enough education for the public to fully understand the complexities of the experience."