Women forced into prostitution are often literally marked for life by their traffickers, branded with tattoos to denote who "owns" them — but Suffolk officials on Friday said they will help such women erase those marks.
The Suffolk County Task Force to Prevent Family Violence reached out to Islandia cosmetic surgeon Scott Blyer, who agreed to remove tattoos of human trafficking victims for free.
Vanessa Baird-Streeter, chairwoman of the task force, said she was friends with Blyer's office manager and thought it wouldn't hurt to ask if his practice would help.
"I just figured, maybe I could possibly make this connection," she said. "He wanted to help right away."
Blyer said he had no idea such a problem existed until he heard from Baird-Streeter. "I feel very blessed that I have the ability to do something about this," he said.
County Executive Steve Bellone said the practice of human traffickers tattooing their victims marks them as property, the way that brands once marked slaves or cattle.
"Just think about that — how dehumanizing that is," Bellone said at a news conference. "No one should have to live with a permanent reminder on their body of a violent time in their lives."
District Attorney Timothy Sini said the tattoo-removal effort is part of a larger effort by law enforcement to treat women forced into prostitution as victims, rather than criminals. "This empowers these women," Sini said. "It often breaks that cycle of violence."
Sini praised the work of nonprofit agencies such as Empowerment Collaborative of Long Island in rebuilding the lives of those rescued from human trafficking. He said his office and police charged 19 people with human trafficking last year as part of a new focus on the issue.
He and Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart noted that trafficking on Long Island is a local issue. Traffickers typically are gang leaders or drug dealers forcing victims into prostitution to repay drug debts or as a way of maintaining control. The tattoos are the most visible form of that control, Hart said.
"These brandings are daily reminders of the traumas our victims have endured," said Jennifer Hernandez, co-founder and executive director of Empowerment Collaborative. She praised Blyer for volunteering to remove tattoos and the county for making the service available to victims.
"It acknowledges that as a community, we are giving these individuals a chance," Hernandez said.
Blyer said that depending on the size and complexity of the tattoo, it can take three to four treatments over the course of a year to remove. He acknowledged that the treatments could be painful, but he and Hernandez said the gain in self-worth would make it worthwhile.
Hernandez and Baird-Streeter said they hoped other doctors would be inspired by Blyer's example and volunteer, too.