Survivors of sexual trafficking joined law enforcement officials and victim advocates Thursday for the inaugural Suffolk County Anti-Trafficking Initiative Memorial Service, honoring the 28 trafficking victims who have died since the organization was created in 2018.
Survivor Laura Mullen of Selden stood before 28 lotus flags at the ceremony at the Riverhead Correctional Facility and said they don’t just represent individuals who died after being forced into sex work.
"These 28 flags represent my friends," said Mullen, a member of the survivors advisory board of Empowerment Collaborative of Long Island, a social services group that provides support and counseling to human trafficking victims.
"These girls, some of them I used [drugs] with, some of them I cried with, some of them we were abused together, some of them I worked with," Mullen added. "Some of them, I cannot get over the pain of them being lost."
The purpose of Thursday’s event was to remember those lost to sex trafficking. But it also highlighted the success that SCATI — a consortium of victim advocates, social services providers and law-enforcement agencies including the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, Suffolk police and District Attorney Timothy Sini’s office — has had in helping survivors break away from abusive relationships and forced sex work.
"Human trafficking does exist and it is happening right here, right now," said Suffolk Correction Officer Investigator Kellie Burghardt.
Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. told the law-enforcement officials and victim advocates who attended Thursday’s memorial that they were there to put an end to the "suffering, the sadness, the violence, the corruption, the addiction, trauma, stress, depression and the feelings of emptiness" that sexual trafficking victims experience.
"We must use tonight as a springboard to accelerate our work and our mission to put an end to human trafficking," Toulon said.
Victim advocates and law enforcement officials say Long Island is a center for sex trafficking, which has been fueled in part by the opioid crisis that has claimed thousands of lives in Nassau and Suffolk counties during the past decade. Acting Suffolk police commissioner Stuart Cameron said his department’s Human Trafficking Investigation Unit has identified 400 victims since it was created in 2018.
Many traffickers use drugs to force individuals into sex work to pay back drug debts or get drugs. Some of the 28 who died suffered fatal drug overdoses.
"I knew coming here tonight there were no words I could say to take away your grief, your heartache or your pain," Sgt. James Murphy of the Suffolk police Human Trafficking Investigations Unit, looking at the mothers of sex trafficking victims who had died.
Speakers included Suffolk Acting Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho, who started the state’s first Human Trafficking Intervention Court in Queens in 2004 and Sini, who created Long Island’s first Human Trafficking Investigations Unit in 2018, when he was police commissioner.
Cameron spoke about how his department, like other police agencies, has changed how it viewed sex work. trafficking victims, long treated like criminals and public nuisances. The main goal now, he said, is to help victims escape the "prostitution lifestyle."
"We began to treat them like victims and that is really what they are, victims," Cameron said.
Toulon, meanwhile, started the first jail-based human trafficking unit in 2018. The unit helps identify sex trafficking victims and connect them to counseling and support services. The unit also provides intelligence to other law-enforcement agencies to help them arrest and prosecute traffickers.
"We want to make sure they are in a position to succeed when they leave our facility," Toulon said.