Nuns, law enforcement mobilize to prevent sex trafficking around the Super Bowl

This story aired on PBS NewsHour Weekend on February 1, 2014.

As millions of fans debate who will win the game and by how much on Super Bowl Sunday, others, including law enforcement, will be focused on preventing the exploitation and trafficking of young women that they say increases around large sporting events.

Producer: Saskia de Melker
Writer: Saskia de Melker
Camera:  Saskia de Melker, Stephen Fee, Mori Rothman
Editor: David Kreger

HARI SREENIVASAN: All this week there have been more than a few concerns on the minds of the Super Bowl Host Committee, including the selling of counterfeit tickets, and of course worries over what had been bitter cold weather.

BRONCOS FANS: “We’re just here to see the team, hopefully we’ll get up in front and I’m sorry my mouth is just so cold I can’t even talk.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: But in this church in Montclair, New Jersey only nine miles away from where the game will be played tomorrow, Sister Pat Daly has a very different concern about the Super Bowl: protecting young women she believes are being exploited by sex traffickers.

SISTER PAT DALY: People don’t really realize the underside of these celebrations. We see spikes of advertising for sex trafficking and prostitution in and around large sporting events.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  One so-called Super Bowl week special we found online this past week offered customers a chance to ‘get out of the freezing weather and get warm and cozy with me.”

Another from someone calling herself a “new Barbie in town” and calling herself a “NFL Super Bowl Secret” promised “satisfaction is always guaranteed.”

Sister Pat says traffickers take advantage of the increased demand for prostitution by bringing in girls and some boys from across the region.

The effort to control trafficking at Super Bowls is actually nothing new. For the past three years, starting in Dallas in 2011 nuns and other activists have mobilized to raise awareness of sex trafficking around the game, especially of minors.

SISTER PAT DALY: Anyone who is involved who is 18 years and younger is going to be a victim of human trafficking. Certainly we’re not going after prostitutes – that’s not what we’re about. What we’re trying to do is focus on the people who are really being held captive, who feel trapped.

DANIELLE DOUGLAS: The fear and the coercion is really what holds someone back from doing what they want to do.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Danielle Douglas, who was profiled in a recent documentary about sex trafficking called tricked, claims she knows firsthand about the problem.

At the age of seventeen and about to start her freshman year of college in Boston, she says she was befriended by an older man, who, one day without warning, dumped her on the street without any belongings and demanded she prostitute herself. When she didn’t, she says he severely beat her.

DANIELLE DOUGLAS: The way that he treated me got progressively worse. He was very violent and he would beat me all the time. He would also verbally abuse me. He kept me on a very shot chain and made sure that I was always right next to him unless I was with a john and that’s part of their manipulation tactics is to keep you very, very close and not let you have any time to yourself. I had food deprivation, sleep deprivation.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  By her account she was held for two years and routinely forced to turn tricks at big sporting events.

DANIELLE DOUGLAS: I was forced to go to certain areas when there were large events Celtics playoffs, big games, big concerts, things like that to be in the area of those events where it was known for people to go after those events – bars restaurants, hotels.

DANIELLE DOUGLAS: There’s alcohol, there’s usually large groups of male people. It’s a form of entertainment. It’s a way that men feel like when they are not with their other half, their girlfriends or wives and are with their male friends they are looking for something else to go on to after the main event and this is what happens. And people know that. The pimps know that and they will direct the people under their control, men and women, girls or boys to those areas.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  And that’s why, with the game fast approaching, sister pat and 400 volunteers who work with her from Connecticut to Philadelphia, have been reaching out to hotels – from small motels to big chains — asking their cooperation in blocking sex trafficking from their lodging. They’re asking hotels to post missing children’s fliers.

MARGOT AND PAT TALKING TO MOTEL MANAGER: We’re going around to all the hotels in the area and we’re asking them to at least keep this in their office so that they can look at images of the girls and then see if they recognize anyone.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  They’re also asking them to post the national hotline in hotel rooms and encouraging them to train staff to recognize the red flags of trafficking.

SISTER PAT DALY: We’re certainly asking people to be watchful of underage children. And then anyone who seems to be coerced. It’s really a sense of so many of the stories we’ve heard from people who are on staff at hotels who have said, ‘yeah we had this gut feeling.’ Well, now we’re trying to train that gut feeling so that the front desk knows what to do or the people in housekeeping – they certainly know what is going on in a hotel room.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Sister Pat’s anti-sex trafficking campaign is actually part of a larger effort. For more than 20 years, she’s been the executive director of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment… which works alongside other faith-based institutional investors to promote corporate responsibility.

Their message about sex trafficking seems to be getting through.

The American Hotel and Lodging Association, which represents more than 50,000 hotels, motels, lodges and inns, recently developed a trafficking training program. The Association gave us a statement saying”

“All employees are expected to comply and are encouraged to alert the authorities if there is suspected trafficking in their hotel.”

While some dispute that sex trafficking actually spikes at sporting events like the super bowl, sister pat believes attention surrounding the game presents an opportunity to publicize the wider problem.

And it is enough of a concern that authorities in New York and New Jersey have focused attention on it.

In the days leading up to tomorrow’s game, New York City Police reported a jump in prostitution arrests — some following from fake sex ads posted by police. Authorities also cracked down on a sex ring that they say had been under surveillance for months. Authorities said they “decided to act now in the hopes of disrupting any parties that might have been in the works for the upcoming Super Bowl weekend.

INSPECTOR ANTHONY FAVALE, NYPD: While we will engage in operations that will apprehend persons for prostitution at every twist and turn of that process we going to campaign to see if there is the potential that this person is a victim of trafficking.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The issue of sex trafficking also came up at a recent security briefing for tomorrow’s game.

COL. RICK FUENTES, SUPERINTENDENT NEW JERSEY STATE POLICE: In this area, troopers, local police officers have been trained to recognize this activity. And of course of most importance is whether children are involved in this trafficking which is obviously a very grievous crime. So we are looking to interrupt this activity where and when it occurs and we are also not just looking to just make arrests although of the traffickers themselves but we’re also looking to rescue people who are trapped in this lifestyle.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Danielle believes the efforts of Sister Pat and others are starting to pay off because of heightened awareness among law enforcement officials and business leaders. But she fears the gains could easily be lost.

DANIELLE DOUGLAS: The moment we decide to stop causing awareness the pimps will most likely go right back to taking the people under their control back to the event.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  A thought echoed by Sister Pat, who is already looking ahead to next year’s game

SISTER PAT: We’re looking at a time today where human beings are treated like commodities so we’re going to continue to be working together long after the Super Bowl moves on to Arizona.