Mothers of victims and Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, joined by federal, state and local officials, announced Friday a campaign to raise public awareness of human trafficking.

Suffolk County police on Friday unveiled a new program to focus public attention on human trafficking, which they called a hidden but growing problem in the region.

Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said at a news conference that police have located 220 sex trafficking victims since October 2017, and arrested 56 suspects.

Sex trafficking in Suffolk “is much more common than people realize,” and not mainly focused on immigrants as many believe, she said. “It is here. It is our daughters, it is our children, our students, that are born and raised here in Suffolk County, and they fall prey to these predators.”

The youngest victim the department has encountered was a 12-year-old girl, she said.

Underscoring the problem on a national basis, President Donald Trump on Friday marked the 20th anniversary of federal legislation to help combat human trafficking by dedicating a new White House position to the issue.

In Suffolk, the police department has created a unit to crack down on human trafficking, with solid results, Hart said. In the year before its creation in October 2017, the department made no arrests for human trafficking, she said.

“The department is continuing to take down the traffickers and the ring leaders at the highest levels while also helping to offer services to these women to help them get their lives back on track,” she said.

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Garaldine Hart fields questions during a...

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Garaldine Hart fields questions during a press conference about sex trafficking at police headquarters in Yaphank on Friday. Credit: James Carbone

The traffickers typically work by targeting girls or young women they view as vulnerable, offering them affection, romance or money and often entering into a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship, officials said. Many of the girls are already addicted to drugs or soon will be as the traffickers provide them with initially free narcotics, officials said.

Then the traffickers tell the girls they owe them money for the drugs, said Suffolk County Undersheriff Kevin Catalina.

“And then all of a sudden you have to pay them back and boom, now you are in this life,” he said.

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol D. Toulan Jr. has identified trafficking as one of the top three criminal problems in the county along with gangs and drug addiction including opioids, Catalina said. Often all three problems are interlinked, he said.

Lisa Principe wipes away a tear as she talks about her...

Lisa Principe wipes away a tear as she talks about her daughter Jenna Dougherty after a news conference in Yaphank on Friday. Principe's daughter was a victim of trafficking and died at 27 of a drug overdose. Credit: James Carbone

To combat the trafficking problem, the police have helped organize a coalition involving law enforcement, community groups and social service agencies, Hart said.

The Suffolk County Anti-Trafficking Initiative includes a website  with a video called “Hidden in Our Backyards: Human Trafficking,” that features two mothers who lost their daughters to trafficking and drug addiction.

“We live on Long Island, we feel like we are safe,” said Lisa Principe, whose daughter Jenna Dougherty was a victim of trafficking and died at 27 of a drug overdose. But trafficking is “here, and they are predators.”

Her daughter, who graduated from Wellington C. Mepham High School in Bellmore, was “beaten, held, drugs, you name it. And this is what is happening on Long Island,” she said.

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