With greater numbers at risk, Merski bill takes aim at human trafficking

Would mandate posting hotline information in public restrooms

HARRISBURG, Feb. 26 – With the risks related to human trafficking on the rise, state Rep. Bob Merski this week introduced a bill that would extend a possible lifeline to victims by mandating that hotline information be posted in public restrooms statewide.

Merski, D-Erie, said he introduced H.B. 644 – which would require that the National Human Trafficking Hotline number be posted in stalls, on mirrors, and by all hand dryers and paper towel dispensers – to increase access to a lifesaving tool at a time when pandemic-based hardships have upped the risks for trafficking victims.

“Human trafficking is modern-day enslavement that exploits captives for commercial sex or forced labor,” Merski said. “Hundreds of cases have been reported in Pennsylvania in recent years, and that number stands to rise as pandemic-based hardships have created new opportunities for perpetrators.

“Although anyone can be a target, traffickers tend to prey on people who appear vulnerable because of homelessness, poverty, depression and other circumstances that breed a sense of desperation. The pandemic – which has exacerbated those problems – has only increased the risk to vulnerable populations and made it more difficult to identify and help them,” he said.

“Posting hotline information in public places where captives may see it can give them a chance, when seconds count, to learn that help is just a phone call away. In other cases, it can give captives – who may not understand the full extent of their situation and may not even self-identify as victims – the recognition and understanding they need to begin to break free.

“Finally, posting signage with this information can raise awareness for members of the public, who may notice someone acting ‘off’ or in distress and may be able to step in and help. Other states that have mandated similar posting of hotline information are seeing much greater call volumes, which tells us that increasing visibility does work.”

Merski added that records from hotline calls are also helpful in investigating and prosecuting trafficking crimes and in getting services to survivors.

According to one source, there were 210 human trafficking cases reported in Pennsylvania in 2017, 275 cases reported in 2018 and 126 cases reported within the first six months of 2019.