Human trafficking victims: Altoona is a hot spot

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ALTOONA, Pa. (WTAJ) — Every two minutes, a child is exploited in the sex industry. 300,000 children are sold for sex, every year. Every 15 minutes, a child is sold for sex.

If you drove through Altoona on Wednesday, you may have seen red sand covering sidewalks around town. For the month of January, Family Services of Altoona is working to raise awareness of human trafficking.

The Red Sand Project is a national movement that symbolizes vulnerable people who “fall through the cracks of society” and end up as victims of traffickers.

This was the first year Family Services Inc. took part in the project.

They say a most of people think of human trafficking as something in movies, but it’s happening right here in our region.

Altoona has been named a hot spot by victims, and many don’t even realize it’s here.

“It is happening right under our noses,” Director of Victim Services Program Ashley Gay Vocco, said.

Vocco said children can be used by someone they’re close to.

“Parents trafficking their kids, or people trafficking their neighbors or people trafficking people they know through school. It’s very relationship building,” she said.

Vocco argued people in the community don’t realize human trafficking is happening around them because they don’t know the red flags.

“Here’s what we know from people who have been pulled from the life of human trafficking. They have named Blair County as a particular place where it’s happening because it’s a hot spot because people aren’t looking for it,” she said.

In 2018 — police arrested Stephen Apostolu and Kara Tornatore in the first human trafficking case ever in Blair County. Both face 40 charges including first degree felonies of trafficking of minors, and sexual abuse of children and are still awaiting trail.

“We have seen an increase in cases in the number of cases. I wouldn’t say a large increase, but we are very aware of the possibility,” Detective Randy Feathers of the Blair County District Attorney’s office said.

Human trafficking is a $150B industry worldwide.

“People can be sold over and over and over again, unlike any other good out there for sale,” Vocco said.

Vocco said victims named Altoona as somewhere they would stay for a night or two then be taken elsewhere in the state, and the country, because of the area’s proximity to major roadways.

“Nobody should ever be for sale,” she said.

Women and children starting at the age of 11 make up 86-percent of human trafficking victims.

“They’re the ones that are being sought out for exactly those reasons. It’s easy to not believe them. It’s easy to twist their stories. It’s easy to make them look like liars,” Vocco said.

Vocco said people should not be afraid to ask questions if they notice someone in their lives suddenly has a large amount of new clothes and jewelry.

“Asking questions like, ‘How did you pay for that? Where did this come from?, she recommended.

Other red flags include significant changes on their social media and even a difficulty focusing and staying awake during the day.

“It’s paying attention and it’s asking a caring question. Hey, what’s going on are you okay? Is someone forcing you to do something you don’t want to do? And really listening to them and letting them know that you believe them and that there’s help out there,” Vocco said.

Vocco is asking folks to call Family Services Inc. or local police if they think someone they know is in danger, and taking the step to ask questions and know the signs can help prevent more harm from being done.

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