JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – In his visit to the Johnstown region, it became clear to Nick Lembo, a coordinator for an anti-trafficking network, that women were selling themselves on the internet, he said.
Then he corrected himself – “more like pimps selling the ads,” he said.
At 2:30 p.m. Monday, he saw 61 online sex ads in the Altoona area and 388 ads in the Pittsburgh area, he said.
“And that’s just one website,” he said. “There’s more.”
Lembo works for Just Men, a civilian nonprofit based in Arizona that is familiar with websites where people are trafficked for sex. He infiltrates the sites and posts decoy ads to glean information from buyers and aid police investigations.
Lembo was one of three presenters on Monday at a meeting that gave people a taste of what they can expect Tuesday at an all-day anti-trafficking conference at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. The conference is hosted by Greater Johnstown Christian Fellowship.
Speakers will include Lembo; leaders from Shared Hope International, a Christian anti-trafficking nonprofit; Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson; Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Richland Township; and a last-minute addition – a leader of an anti-trafficking agency in Austria who presented at a world conference recently, said Doug Lengenfelder, a field representative for Dush.
Lengenfelder said registration will begin at 8 a.m. Tuesday at Pitt-Johnstown’s John P. Murtha Center, 450 Schoolhouse Road. The cost is $15, which covers lunch. The final session will conclude at 4:45 p.m.
The conference is aimed at equipping civilians with knowledge to recognize signs that can prevent children from being trafficked or aid authorities in rescuing someone who is a victim of trafficking.
“It’s much easier to stop a child from getting into this than to get them out,” Lembo said.
Shared Hope International volunteer Kim Smith said online safety is crucial in schools and households.
“Schools are clamoring for help. Parents are clamoring for help,” she said. “Right now, we have kids experiencing things that lead them to self-harm and suicide. … They met someone online, feel shamed and stupid. They won’t tell adults. We offer tools and tips, work with teachers.”
Shared Hope International’s website includes state report cards on the strength of their anti-trafficking laws.
The organization gives Pennsylvania a grade of F for child sex trafficking. The state’s weakest points, according to the organization are “identification and response to victims,” “continuum of care,” and “prevention and training.”
Lengenfelder said that report card was one of the reasons Dush has become focused on upgrading anti-trafficking laws in Pennsylvania.
“Senator Dush has taken on the challenge to update our laws associated with human trafficking,” he said. “No law is going to be changed instantly. It’s a long painful process.”
According to an FBI statistic cited by Lembo, between 100,000 and 300,000 children are trafficked each year.
Although much of the information shared at the conference may be upsetting to hear, Lembo said, he also said people shouldn’t be afraid.
“It’s been happening all around us, but don’t let it startle you,” he said. “The fact that you have information is powerful, and it means your kids will be safer.”