Incidents of suspected child sex trafficking have spiked in Maryland, according to a News4 I-Team review of state police records and public reports by nonprofit trafficking investigators.
The increase is impacting communities in Montgomery, Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties and it has triggered a new approach by a specialized Maryland State Police unit to save the trafficking victims.
The I-Team’s review found at least 384 young women were suspected of being sold for sex by Maryland state police investigators since 2012. A large number of them, authorities said, were trafficked on websites. An undercover review by the I-Team found police investigators were able to make contact with young women suspected of being trafficked for sex, within a two-hour period on one weekday afternoon near Glen Burnie, Maryland.
Separate records, filed publicly in an annual report by Polaris Project, a non-profit organization which tracks trafficking crimes, reveals a surge in hotline calls for help by potential victims in Maryland. They reported dozens of calls combined in Bowie, Gaithersburg, Rockville and Laurel.
View Maryland Human Trafficking Calls 2012 in a full screen map
Withelma Walker Ortiz Pettigrew, a trafficking victim who agreed to speak with the News4 I-Team, said she had been sold for sex since the age of 10.
“(The men) would pay a higher price, knowing that I was underage,” she said.
Pettigrew said the man trafficking her was violent and demanded she turn over money earned through sexual encounters with men.
“If I didn’t make his money, then I would be beat,” she said. “I would be tortured.”
Corporal Chris Heid, who leads the Maryland State Police Child Recovery Unit, which specializes in rescuing trafficking victims, said the agency has launched a new effort to save the young women. Heid and his investigators search for potential victims and, as part of an undercover operation, they set up one-on-one encounters with the women. But instead of arresting the girls and questioning them for the names of traffickers, the state police unit offers counseling and information on support groups. They turn the girls free.
“The Child Recovery Unit treats every girl met as a victim,” Heid said while testifying about the state police trafficking program before Congress. “The unit is not interested in arresting the girls they encounter in prostitution. The goals of the unit are to locate juvenile victims, offer assistance to adult victims, and arrest and prosecute the traffickers and pimps.”
Federal agencies have targeted traffickers and announced recent arrests.
A June 23 nationwide roundup caught child sex traffickers throughout the country -- 168 children were recovered, and 281 pimps arrested.
A U.S. Justice Department Inspector General report found the Washington, D.C.-metro area is among 13 “high-intensity child prostitution” areas of the country.
- Los Angeles
- San Francisco
- San Diego
- New York City
- Washington, D.C.
- Las Vegas
- St. Louis