The local district attorney’s office says that it is expanding resources devoted to human trafficking in the region, an illegal trade they say is active on the Cape and Islands.
District Attorney Rob Galibois, in a press conference highlighting the grant award on Monday in Barnstable — along with local lawmakers, and in a room full of local law enforcement officers — said there have been nearly 60 human trafficking cases on the Cape and Islands over the past three years. But his office says that cases are likely underreported, because it’s hard to identify sex trafficking, and there’s been little training to identify the practice in the past.
Noting that the issue is something his office takes seriously, Galibois also reported Monday that there’s been a more than 30 percent increase in cases since he was sworn in as the top prosecutor in 2023.
Galibois said that the number of cases prosecuted will only grow under his leadership, thanks in part to a new round of state funding. The office received a nearly $100,000 state grant, which Galibois said is the first grant of its kind the office has received.
The funding will go to training and supporting local police departments to build cases against perpetrators, as well as to train hospitality and healthcare workers to help identify instances of sex trafficking; funding will also go to supporting survivors.
“While we are certainly happy to receive these funds, we will be seeking additional funding so we can promote awareness of human trafficking, so we can help our law enforcement partners build the investigations they need to bring their cases, so we can help survivors, and of course prosecute offenders,” Galibois said.
Vanessa Madge, a prosecutor in the D.A.’s office, declined to comment on individual cases on Martha’s Vineyard at the press conference on Monday, but she noted that there were ongoing investigations associated with the Island. “It’s happening there,” Madge said.
Madge said that human trafficking isn’t just prostitution or transporting victims over international borders; it can include driving a victim to a hotel, or driving them to someone’s house, where they are paid for services. She said that in today’s world, these paid services are generally set up online, and that perpetrators tend to exploit younger victims. “Traffickers look to expose people’s vulnerabilities,” Madge said.
For workers in the healthcare and hospitality industry, Madge noted that hotels are where much of the human trafficking takes place; providing hotel employees with the training to identify the activity could help catch perpetrators. And for the healthcare industry, many stuck in the trade go to hospitals or other healthcare settings to get help.
Also on Monday, the district attorney announced that his office has opened a 24/7 hotline specifically for human trafficking on the Cape and Islands. The number to call or text is 774-822-0632.
While funding is being earmarked for a number of Cape organizations, like the Independence House and Barnstable Police Department, the DA’s office says that funding will go toward raising awareness on the Islands as well. Funding will also go to a detective’s unit in his office that will build cases.
Audrey Morrissey, co-executive director of My Life, My Choice, and a survivor of human trafficking, underscored that hotels are areas where human trafficking can occur. She could not speak directly to the Island, but said that where there are money and travel, human trafficking tends to follow.
“People really do not believe this is a real issue,” she said. Morrissey said that there is a perception that human trafficking is something that happens overseas, in foreign countries.
My Life, My Choice, a Boston organization, is among the groups receiving funding to help survivors in the Cape and Islands. The group has been providing support to residents on the Cape before, but with the funding, she said, that support will go to a deeper level.
“With this money, we want to be able to help other young people, so they can carry on this work and help another survivor get out of this life,” she said.
Morrissey said that My Life, My Choice helps young survivors by pairing them with older victims, to give them a connection and a perspective to help them see another life. She said she’s excited to be included in the grant funding.
The grant is from the Healey administration, through the FY24 Human Trafficking Enforcement and Training Grant Program. The administration announced a total of $472,428.50 was awarded to six District Attorney’s Offices across the state.
“In recognition of Human Trafficking Awareness Month, we reaffirm our deep commitment to ensuring that every person can live with dignity, respect, and free from fear and abuse,” Gov. Maura Healey was quoted in a release. “This grant funding will support survivors of domestic and sexual violence, human trafficking, and stalking by investing in programs that promote healing and justice. These grants allow professionals from diverse sectors to provide survivors with access to culturally appropriate and trauma-informed services.”