Top state officials announced Tuesday a new four-person State Police unit targeting human trafficking cases that involve children.
At a State House event, officials also announced policies clarifying that minors who are sexually exploited — paid for sex, for instance — are not criminals, but victims of child abuse who should be aided by the state Department of Children and Families.
The push “will help us bring this issue to the forefront and, most importantly, help the children that are victimized and that are hurting in too many places here in our Commonwealth,” said Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, who leads a state council on preventing domestic violence and sexual assault, at a news conference.
Detective Lieutenant Pi Downsbrough, a nearly 25-year veteran of the State Police, is in charge of the unit, which includes three other troopers, and has been up and running for a few weeks.
Downsbrough said its focus will be children under 18 who are being exploited and trafficked for sex. But “there is no bright line when you’re doing these investigations,” she said, so if there are older victims, the unit will also ensure there is a criminal investigation and work to get the victims help.
State Police spokesman David Procopio said the force has a squad that does human trafficking cases, but the new unit will bring more assets to combat the practice when it involves minors. It will also coordinate efforts with social service agencies and be a source of expertise for local law enforcement.
Officials said the unit will work in a supporting role for local police tackling smaller trafficking operations, but it may take the lead in going after larger and more complex ones.
Asked how common child sex trafficking is in Massachusetts, Polito said part of the problem is that is underreported because “it’s an activity that is very much in the shadows.” The lieutenant governor said part of the reason for the administration’s efforts is to bring the crime to the forefront.
The policy change, which is implementing a shift in the law, will mandate that when there is a case of child sexual exploitation — for example, a minor being paid for sex — there will be a response from DCF in addition to law enforcement. DCF could help place victims in foster homes or provide social services, while law enforcement could target the traffickers.
“A youth who has been commercially sexually exploited — until the law changed and we changed the policy — they could have been prosecuted as a prostitute,” said Marylou Sudders, state secretary of health and human services. “So now what happens is, it is seen as a form of child abuse or neglect.”
Officials also emphasized DCF now has a formal policy that requires every instance of suspected human trafficking to be reported and tracked.
Erin G. Bradley, executive director of the Children’s League of Massachusetts, said the actions announced Tuesday are “a great step forward.” But, she said, “we need to push government action further.”
Bradley said a next, important step is a bill pending before the Legislature that would prohibit families from rehoming children — transferring their adopted children to the custody of strangers. That practice often leads to sexual abuse and other kinds of exploitation, she said.