Is there human trafficking in the Finger Lakes?

Yes there is, and a local woman who has lived it shared her story recently.

Jessica Levinson says she’s a typical upstate mom who faces the same challenges of her neighbors and friends when it comes to managing her young family and her responsibilities as Chairperson of the Social Ministry Committee of Our Lady of the Lakes Parish and as presiding member of the board of directors for the Good Shepherd Youth Maternity Safehouse Project.

But beneath the good works she fills her days with today are the scars from a past as a survivor of human trafficking.

The top three types of trafficking cases in 2018, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, were: sex trafficking, labor trafficking, and sex & labor trafficking.

Levinson says she was first sexually assaulted at age 9 by her mother’s boyfriend. When she was assaulted a second time she didn’t bother to report it because nothing happened when she reported the first incident. “Mom’s grasp of reality was gone,” she says.

Her self worth was cemented when mother traded her as a 12-year-old to a 34-year-old man for drugs. “I didn’t know I was my own person. I didn’t think I had a right to say, ‘no’ and I didn’t have a right to myself,” she explains, adding, “I thought I was supposed to be for sexual gratification. I didn’t know there was anything wrong.”

When she turned 17, she, like other survivors, realized she could become part of the legal sex trade. Over the years, she was an exotic dancer at night, attended college to study social work during the day, and raised her children in the afternoon. “I lived my life in darkness,” she says.

Then, it took miraculous interaction for her life to take a turn, and she credits her husband with much of her transformation. “He brought me to a safe personal space and worked with me,” she says.

Now, she lives near Naples and works with other women coming out of the trauma of surviving sexual exploitation, who found themselves in situations she knows all too well. “You lose your ability to make money outside the trade,” she says, explaining that it takes several steps for victims to recover.

Levinson spoke to a group of about 80 human service workers, law enforcement, emergency responders, and volunteers at a workshop organized by Safe Harbors of the Finger Lakes and Yates County Youth Bureau Oct. 2.

She and other speakers shared information about the scope of Human Trafficking and about options that are now available to help people change their lives.

Anyone can help a person recover, she says. “It takes an entire community to make a difference.” she says, adding, “You never know when you are interacting with someone who is a survivor. Try to be patient. Try to be gentle. Try to find creative ways to bring bright light into someone’s life.”

Area agencies that offer help for people recovering from sexual exploitation include Safe Harbors of the Finger Lakes, The Potter’s Hands Foundation, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and Finger Lakes Community Health.

Safe Harbors of the Finger Lakes’ Anti-Trafficking Program provides case coordination and advocacy for youth who have been the subject of commercial sexual exploitation.

Deborah Kuehner of The Potter’s Hands Foundation in Corning offered information on the programs offered by the organization, including a safe house located in the Southern Tier. The home is a safe secure place for sex trafficked and sexually exploited women ages 18 and up. Residents spend a year in the home to begin the process of recovery as they work toward a life of independence. The Potter’s Hands also provides education and community supports. Heavenly Treats is a volunteer run confection business based in Corning that donates all profits to the organization.

Ashley Hennekey of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children offered information on using technology for reporting and tracking cases.