On Tuesday, Jasmine Grace Marino, a survivor of human trafficking, spoke at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park about her experiences and advocacy work for women in danger. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

Jasmine Grace Marino was 19 and working in a hair salon when she met a guy one night in a club near Boston.

“I was like a regular 18, 19-year-old,” she said Tuesday at a news conference on human trafficking at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park. “But when this guy came along and bought me a drink for seven bucks, I was impressed, because he was handsome and he had a lot of cash and a lot of jewelry and dressed nicely.”

When she saw him a few days later, he showed up in a champagne-colored Mercedes-Benz.

The man groomed Marino for about six months, becoming her boyfriend, showering her with gifts and money, telling her of grand plans to improve her life.

And then he turned her into a prostitute, a life she could not escape because of the threat of physical violence, as well as the emotional ties.

“I was never handcuffed to a radiator like some people may think trafficking looks like,” “she said. “But it was more a mental and emotional bondage which kept me very coerced and manipulated and in fear for many years.”

Marino’s appearance at the hospital came as the Northwell health care system announced stepped-up efforts to combat human trafficking.

Northwell launched a program in March 2017 to help identify trafficking victims who come into contact with medical personnel. Now Northwell is increasing those efforts as it trains more personnel and partners with a UN-sponsored program, said Dr. Santhosh Paulus, who launched Northwell Health’s Human Trafficking Response Program at Huntington Hospital in 2017.

Since then, the program has identified nine trafficking victims, including six who accepted help, he said.

Numbers are elusive, but trafficking is a problem on Long Island, Paulus said, with some studies showing that Suffolk County has twice the national average.

Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said at a news conference last month that police had located 220 sex trafficking victims in the county since October 2017, and arrested 56 suspects.

Internationally it also is a major problem, and much more needs to be done to address it, said Deb O’Hara-Rusckowski, co-founder of Global Strategic Operatives for the Eradication of Human Trafficking, which she founded as a delegate to the UN.

”We’re making dents, and we’re trying to find ways of making the largest dents,” she said.

She noted that an estimated 88% of all trafficking victims sought medical care while they were being trafficked.

“That puts health care providers really in a unique position to identify victims and take appropriate action,” she said.

Marino said she was trying to use her own experience to educate the public about trafficking.

“Traffickers use our vulnerabilities to exploit us, “she said. “No little girl dreams of becoming a prostitute."

Trafficking “is very similar to domestic violence but on steroids because of the shame that is happening to you from the exploitation of the commercial sex trade,” she said.

For years she was unable to escape her trafficker, who began to use violence on her and always had a gun with him, Marino said.

“I believed he was going to use it, “she said. “He told me he would. He told me he would kill me and my family. I just felt so trapped.”

Eventually she did escape and, after a bout of drug addiction and homelessness, got her life back on track, partly with the help of members of a small local Christian church who did not judge her or her past.

“That is my call to you,” she told about two dozen Northwell workers who attended the news conference. “To be nonjudgmental and compassionate to your patients.”

Correction: In one instance, an earlier version of this story misstated the year the Human Trafficking Response Program started at Huntington Hospital. 

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