The latest tool in the battle against human sex trafficking in Suffolk County is a hashtag.
Officials Thursday lauded measures already taken to curtail human sex trafficking in the area and pushed for participation in “The 13 Campaign.”
The social media initiative — a local effort to recognize January as National Human Trafficking Awareness Month — encourages Suffolk residents to tweet photos of themselves at age 13 to @hopeprojectny with #13campaign as the hashtag.
Participants can also post an image of the number 13 and write what they thought about at that age, officials said. The idea being that the average age of victims of human sex trafficking is 13, officials said.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone introduced the effort at a Hauppauge news conference attended by county officials and members of the Hope Project, a rehabilitation program on Long Island for victims of sex trafficking.
“It’s something we like to think happens in other places but not here. But the reality is, it does happen here,” Bellone said. “They shouldn’t be in these terrible circumstances being exploited. They should be kids.”
As of mid-December, Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini said, law enforcement, in collaboration with local Suffolk agencies, had shut down 34 massage parlors in 2016 suspected of participating in human sex trafficking.
“We’re not where I want them to be,” Sini said. “We knew there was an issue when we received community complaints.”
Official said approximately 20 to 30 million people worldwide are victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking, defined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as modern-day slavery involving the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain labor or a commercial sex act.
Analysts estimate that as many as 300,000 victims are in the United States, with some as young as 9, officials said.
In Suffolk, officials with the county’s Family and Children Services said a 2014 state grant allowed them to start a start a Safe Harbour Project, an initiative designed to care for children who are victims of or at risk of being sexually exploited.
Last year, more than 25,000 children in Suffolk County were screened, officials said, with 81 of those checked leading to further investigation. Of that group, eight children were determined to have been victims of sex trafficking.
Since the program’s implementation, 14 children were determined to be victims of sex exploitation, officials said.