There Are Widespread Reports of Sex Trafficking, So Why No Convictions?

There Are Widespread Reports of Sex Trafficking, So Why No Convictions?

Although state agencies have received hundreds of reports of sex trafficking in Hawaii in recent years, state prosecutors have failed to convict a single person of the crime since legislators formally outlawed the practice in 2016, a review of state and local records by Civil Beat found.

The inability to win convictions has persisted despite ramped up state and local efforts to curb trafficking, including a federally funded human trafficking task force in Honolulu, and more than half a dozen legal reforms aimed at holding traffickers accountable.

Prosecutors at both the state and county level told Civil Beat that bringing traffickers to justice is difficult because much of the activity is veiled by online anonymity and victims are often reluctant to face their abusers in court.

State and local prosecutors have not convicted anyone under the sex trafficking statute enacted in 2016. 

The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the state lacks a unified system to track trafficking cases across the state. Without comprehensive data to illustrate the scope of the problem, the state has dedicated relatively little money to combatting traffickers.

In a report to the Legislature in December, then-state Attorney General Clare Connors made clear that although data on sex trafficking is “limited and disaggregated,” the problem is severe.

“Based on observations and experience, practitioners in the field conclude that incidents of (the commercial sexual exploitation of children) and human trafficking are widespread in Hawaii,” Connors wrote.

Reports from independent and state agencies underscore the point.

The Hawaii Department of Human Services, for example, received at least 183 reports of suspected child sex trafficking between 2018 and 2020. The department has yet to release its 2021 report.

Between February 2019 and June 2021, Hawaii’s Child Welfare Services agency, a branch within DHS, received 205 reports of children being trafficked, according to the attorney general’s report. At least 67 of those cases were ultimately confirmed.

The Susannah Wesley Community Center, which is contracted by CWS to provide treatment to trafficking victims, reported treating 248 individuals referred to them between 2019 and 2020.

And the nonprofit National Human Trafficking Hotline reported that in 2020 it received 108 reports of human trafficking from people in Hawaii, including calls, texts, emails and online tips.

In addition, an oft-cited 2020 survey conducted by the nonprofit Child and Family Service organization, the Arizona State University School of Social Work’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research and the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women found in interviews with 363 individuals receiving social services across the state, that 97, or nearly 27%, reported being sex trafficked.

While reports of sex trafficking have piled up, police and prosecutors have taken up relatively few cases.

Between 2014 and 2020, the Hawaii Criminal Justice Data Center in the attorney general’s office reported 19 arrests statewide for sex trafficking or promoting prostitution in the first degree, the legal term for sex trafficking in Hawaii until 2016.

Only one of those arrests — which occurred in 2015 under the earlier statute — resulted in a conviction on the original charges.

The Department of Human Services began including sex trafficking data on its annual Child Abuse and Neglect report in 2018. 

County prosecutors have also struggled to prosecute traffickers. In 2018, then-Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro told reporters that his office had investigated 19 cases of sex trafficking the previous year. The office brought charges in 15 of those cases, Kaneshiro said, yet none of the accused were ultimately found guilty of sex trafficking.

In only one case have county prosecutors come close to securing a conviction. In 2017, Paola Ibarra and Gustavo Ferreira were arrested in Honolulu and charged with sex trafficking and kidnapping a 21-year-old woman from California who claimed the couple forced to her perform sex acts for money in Waikiki.

At trial in 2018, defense attorneys repeatedly highlighted the accuser’s history as a sex worker. In the end, Ibarra was acquitted of sex trafficking but found guilty of the lesser offense of promoting prostitution in the second degree and sentenced to five years probation. She was also ordered to pay a $2,500 “human trafficking fee,” according to court records.

Ferreira was acquitted of all charges.

New Partnerships

While the Ibarra trial was underway, Honolulu law enforcement agencies partnered with the Susannah Wesley Community Center to apply for a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice in an effort to bolster chronically underfunded local efforts to combat the sex trade.

“Everybody was working very siloed and so we wanted to bring everyone together so that we could try to combat trafficking in the island,” said Shantae Williams, Human Trafficking Program Coordinator at the Wesley center.

In September 2018, the DOJ awarded the City and County of Honolulu a $700,000 grant to create the Honolulu County Human Trafficking Task Force. The Wesley center received an additional $375,000 from the DOJ.

Despite the infusion of cash, there have been no new prosecutions initiated in Honolulu or elsewhere in the state.

The Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has not prosecuted a sex trafficking case since the formation of the Honolulu County Human Trafficking Task Force. 

The one sex trafficking case currently underway is a holdover from 2013. It involves an individual charged with sexual assault and trafficking of a minor. The case was dismissed on a technicality last year but has since been refiled under the statute as it existed in 2013.

Rochelle Vidinha, deputy prosecuting attorney at the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and head of the Honolulu County Human Trafficking Task Force, said the case has been repeatedly delayed at the request of the defense and, more recently, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

She said she expects the case will come to trial in the near future.

Vidinha said that in light of low prosecution rates, the Honolulu County Human Trafficking Task Force has recently started training HPD officers to take a more proactive approach to apprehending sex traffickers, including initiating undercover sting operations.

“We’re thinking that might be a way for us to build cases that are going to be stronger,” Vidinha said. “That might be a way for us to generate cases where we can actually go after both the traffickers and the buyers.”

The task force has also established a new “Rapid Response” protocol which brings together members of the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, the Department of the Attorney General, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Honolulu Police Department, and the Homeland Security Investigations Unit to coordinate efforts when new cases emerge.

“What’s been frustrating in this work for myself, and I think the service providers and law enforcement feel the same way, is the difficulty we’re having holding traffickers accountable,” Vidinha said. “We know there are victims. We have service providers working with our victims. We know trafficking is taking place in our community.”

Civil Beat filed a public records request in January with the Department of Justice for reports the task force is required to produce as a condition of the $700,000 federal grant. This would include information on all criminal, civil, and administrative cases initiated in connection with the grant as well as financial records and progress reports.

DOJ has acknowledged receipt of the request but has not yet provided any documents.

The task force declined to provide Civil Beat with copies of the reports it has submitted to the Justice Department.

New Bill With A Familiar Feel

While prosecutions of sex trafficking have largely stalled, a bill currently under consideration in the state Senate would allocate $754,000 to help establish a unit within the Attorney General’s Office to help convict traffickers.

The bill, which also earmarks funding for a white-collar crime investigation unit, has received unanimous support from three Senate committees and is expected to clear the full Senate in the coming weeks.

In its current form, the bill would create nine new full time positions within the Attorney General’s Office, including a human trafficking abatement coordinator and two investigators, as well as a supervising deputy attorney general and two deputy attorneys general focused on trafficking cases.

The specialized unit would assist and train law enforcement agencies on the detection and prosecution of trafficking cases, gather data on trafficking statewide, and provide specialized personnel and equipment for law enforcement agencies to use to combat trafficking.

“With this type of unit with dedicated investigators and staff and analysts who are going to help us digest this information, it’s going to speak volumes in terms of what we can do in combating these types of offenses,” Deputy Attorney General Michelle Puu said. “It’s not something that’s been available in this state before.”

Another bill introduced in the state Senate last month would require the Hawaii Department of Human Services to develop a notice containing information about the National Human Trafficking Hotline that certain business establishments would be required to post, including at bus stations, emergency rooms, hotels, businesses licensed to offer massage or bodywork services and establishments that possess a liquor license.

A third bill, a carryover from last year, would require the Hawaii Department of Education to offer training for teachers and other school personnel on sex trafficking response and prevention.

“The Department strongly agrees that commercial sexual exploitation of children is a dire problem in Hawaii, which could be better addressed by increased awareness and training within our State’s various agencies,” the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office wrote in support of the bill. “The Department also supports increased collaboration and communication between government agencies, and welcomes any opportunity for discussion or participation in multiagency efforts to address this serious problem.”