HEAAT stands for Helping to Educate and Advocate Against Trafficking. Its founders and board members are current or retired social workers, counselors and teachers.
For years they worked with children and teens – many of whom were runaways – who had gotten into trouble with drugs, alcohol and prostitution. But it took education of the professionals to see the trafficking element.
They realized they needed to form a group that could do fundraising, so started the HEAAT Foundation, said HEAAT President and CEO Tina Minnis, of Ventnor.
Minnis is a retired state Division of Youth and Family Services manager. She went through a federal training program on trafficking in 2006.
“It was a huge eye opener for me,” she said.
Runaways are often victimized. About one in three runaway youth are lured into prostitution by sex traffickers and pimps within 48 hours of leaving home, according to HEAAT.
“The average age of entry into the commercial sex trade is 11 to 14,” said Dawn Lomangino-DiMauro, of Galloway Township, the foundation’s vice president who has a private counseling practice and works with victims of rape and domestic violence. “You’re not really able to make a conscious decision at that age.”
Retired drug and alcohol counselor Joni Whelan, of Williamstown, said she had seen many cases of children whose parents traded them for drugs, to other adults who would sexually abuse them.
“For years I never considered it human trafficking,” she said. “I viewed it as one of worst parts of parental addiction.” But a conversation with Minnis made her realize the children she was treating were victims of human trafficking.
Whelan worked in Burlington and Atlantic counties, and said ped-ophiles, many of whom are married with children of their own, come in from outside the addict community to pay to sexually abuse children.
“People really need to know that it’s happening in their communities,” she said.
HEAAT has five officers on its 10-member board of trustees. It uses volunteers occasionally to help with events, but not on a regular basis. Stockton Prof. Robert Barney is on the board, and some of his social work students are helping with the fundraisers.
HEAAT members want to raise funds for a shelter for children and teens who have been sexually exploited and are holding a benefit Nov. 2. The Covenant House shelter accepts young people ages 16 to 21. When younger teens are found living on the street, being sold for sex by adults, they are often sent to juvenile justice facilities or back to families that may be part of the problem, said Lomangino-DiMauro.
This year’s fundraiser is only the second the group has held, Minnis said.
HEAAT has also held two human trafficking awareness days at the statehouse in Trenton, and its members go into schools to talk to educators and students about the issue. They also talk to other social service professionals. Minnis recently spoke at a federal training in New York City.
It’s important to educate police, social service workers and educators about the problem, so victims can be helped rather than punished, said Lomangino-DiMauro.
“These people’s rights are stripped away,” she said. “They are forced through coercion to do something against their will. It is traumatizing.” But at the same time victims are often under the control of their traffickers, and sometimes return to them, much as a victim of domestic violence sometimes returns to an abuser, she said.
Holly Austin Smith, who grew up in Galloway Township but now lives in Virginia, writes about her victimization on the HEAAT website. About 20 years ago, at age 14, a man approached her at a shopping mall. He called her frequently, and convinced her to run away from home, she said.
“Within hours of running away with what turned out to be a manipulative and menacing pimp, I was coerced into working Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City, until dawn the next day,” she wrote.
She was soon arrested. There was little recognition of the trafficking issue at the time, and few services to help her recover. The pimp served only a year in jail, she said. Visit her blog and website at HollyAustinSmith.com.
Last week, a bill to increase penalties against those who engage in human trafficking and provide help to victims, passed the Assembly Judiciary committee. HEAAT had worked on the bill with New Jersey’s Junior Leagues, the Polaris Project, New Jersey CASA and other groups.
“You may think it only happens in developing nations, but it happens right here in New Jersey,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Bergen, sponsor of the Human Trafficking Prevention, Protection and Treatment Act, when testifying on behalf of the bill in committee.
Human trafficking has been a felony in New Jersey since 2005, but there have been only 33 defendants charged with the offense, and no convictions to date, said Daniel Phillips of the state Administrative Office of the Courts.
The bill, which has a companion in the Senate, would create a 15-member state commission on human trafficking, expand the list of offenses related to trafficking and increase protection for victims, and vacate prior prostitution convictions for minors found to have been victims of trafficking.
It also would tighten penalties on those who fail to verify that advertisers on their sites are not minors, expand training for law enforcement officials, and establish “John schools,” to educate customers who solicit prostitutes about the industry’s exploitation of trafficked labor and minors.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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