Fighting back against human trafficking in Massachusetts

BOSTON — Boston 25 News is exposing a major problem hiding in plain sight in Massachusetts: human trafficking. Experts say it’s a modern form of slavery that’s happening in every city and town in the state.

“It’s happening behind closed doors, right on the streets. It’s happening everywhere,” said Audra Doody, a human trafficking survivor.

Most human trafficking is done online, where arrangements are made after only a few mouse clicks.

“On any given day, you can order a young girl for sex as easily as you can order a pizza,” said Nikki Bell, founder of Living In Freedom Together (LIFT), in Worcester, a survivor-led and run organization that reaches out to victims.

The scope of the problem is so large that the Massachusetts attorney general’s office has opened a human trafficking division. Investigators have found the demand for illicit sex is shockingly common.

“One report estimated that as many as 9,000 searches each day for sex were happening every afternoon via computer terminals in the City of Boston,” Attorney General Maura Healey told Boston 25 News in a Zoom interview.

And it turns out, not even the COVID-19 pandemic is slowing business.

“One of the girls told me, at the beginning of the pandemic, it was business as usual,” said Doody, who is also director of outreach at LIFT, “I thought maybe some of the buyers wouldn’t want to put themselves or their families at risk. But that doesn’t seem to affect them, it’s not changing their way of thinking.”

The people fulfilling the demand for illegal sex are women, men and, sometimes, children. All of them are the victims of human trafficking and exploitation. And nearly all of them were lured into this dark world by a trusted figure who preys upon vulnerabilities to make money.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there are currently more than 100 missing children from Massachusetts. It is believed many of them are human trafficking victims.

“More often than not, those children end up exploited or trafficked,” Nikki Bell said.

Bell founded Worcester LIFT in 2014 as a way to help herself get out of “the life.” In six years, the organization has helped more than 400 other people.

“When you think about the amount of money people can earn exploiting other people, gangs are getting involved in this. It’s much safer to sell girls and women and vulnerable people than it is to sell guns and drugs,” Bell said.

Healey said the issue of human trafficking is deeper than most people realize.

“It’s the fastest-growing criminal enterprise, worldwide,” Healey said.

The attorney general’s Human Trafficking Division is fighting back by targeting demand: the customers. But beyond prosecution, the office is also trying to help victims find a way out.

“We’ve got to give these survivors resources. We’ve got to empower them. They’ve had power taken from them, some as young as 12, 13, or 14 years old,” Healey said.

Today, Audra Doody works with Nikki Bell at Worcester Lift by finding human trafficking victims in the court and on the streets and offering a chance at a new life.

“It is rewarding when you see people get out of the life and do well. But for the most part, I don’t see that. I see a lot of violence, a lot of assaults, rapes, death. [I see] a lot of death,” Doody said.

But the efforts to help continue. LIFT is opening a shelter for human trafficking victims. It is hoped it will be a first step toward turning lives around.

“I love how women like myself know that there is support available and there is a way out,” Bell said.