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PA Senators Learn About the Horrors of Human Trafficking

“You can sell a drug once, but you can sell a child over and over and over again,” said Chantee Vernille with Familylinks. “Please tell your friends and your neighbors that this is something happening in every ZIP code.”

Vernille spoke to the state Senate Policy Majority Committee’s hearing on human trafficking last week. Pennsylvania is considering new laws and increased spending to address the problem.

“It is a multibillion-dollar industry thriving on the vulnerability of its victims, perpetuating the cycle of suffering,” said committee chair Sen. Dan Laughlin (R-Erie). “More than 27 million people around the world endure the appalling abuse of human trafficking and forced labor, including thousands of people right here in the United States. It is a threat to global security, public safety, and human dignity.”

Various forms include sexual exploitation, forced labor, involuntary servitude, and child exploitation, he said.

“Due to the clandestine nature of human trafficking, many cases go unreported,” Laughlin said. January is Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) said, “The trafficking is horrendous. It is horrible. Women and children mainly. Labor and sexual.” One of her bills signed into law last year puts traffickers on the Megan’s List registry. Pennsylvania is the first state to take that step.

She called on the legislature “to get some really strong laws passed. Because if we don’t, who is going to protect these people?”

Executive Deputy Attorney General Michele Kelly Walsh and Chief Deputy Attorney General Heather Castellino both testified before the committee. Castellino is in charge of the new Human Trafficking Section launched by Attorney General Michelle Henry to “address and bolster statewide efforts to effectively investigate and prosecute human trafficking cases and facilitate assistance for victims.”

There were 341 Pennsylvania victims or survivors of sexual trafficking who contacted the human trafficking hotline in 2021. Some 192 cases were identified, with 315 victims. Those cases included 153 sex trafficking cases, 18 forced labor cases, and eight sex and labor trafficking cases.

The victims included 129 adults, 42 minors, 154 females and 27 males. Typical venues for sex trafficking were illicit massage/spa businesses and residence-based commercial sex.

Walsh said the Attorney General’s Office has been prosecuting these cases for more than a decade. But more resources are needed because the cases are “not short term. They require trained investigators, trained prosecutors, and they require time.”

“These cases are not what you see in Hollywood,” she said. “These traffickers prey upon the vulnerable among us, typically young females.”

Victims struggle with drug addiction, homelessness, poverty, and low self-esteem. “They are chosen by these predators for a reason,” said Walsh.

Fred Woodard, director of investigations with Asservo Project, said, “A year ago, we had a young boy taken from his home in the middle of the night and driven halfway across the country.”

A predator groomed the boy through a chatroom on Discord. The Asservo Project is pioneering the use of AI facial recognition to track trafficking victims, he said.

Sidney McCoy, director of advocacy at Shared Hope International, said the group has analyzed legislation and policies in the states, and in 2023, Pennsylvania scored a ‘D.’ The “unjust criminalization” of survivors needs to stop, she said. “We will not simply prosecute our way out of this issue.”

Pennsylvania is one of 30 states that prohibit charging minors for prostitution, acknowledging that “no child engages in commercial sex by choice.”

Victims are sometimes forced into other crimes by their captors, she said. And “vulnerabilities do not end at 18.” She said she believes protection from prosecution needs to be extended to adult victims.

Brad Ortenzi, Zoe International’s regional director, said it had implemented prevention and awareness strategies in Berks and Lancaster Counties along with the district attorney offices. They train people at various agencies to identify victims of human trafficking and to prevent it. They have also taught people at hospitals, hotels, and at homeless shelters.

They match vulnerable children with a Zoe advocate for mentorship for “relational-based prevention.”

“Rarely does a child disclose they’re being trafficked,” he said.

Women who are recently released from prison are vulnerable to traffickers, he said. Zoe has developed a program to educate female inmates about the danger of being recruited into the sex trade once they are released.

John McKown with Truckers Against Trafficking said there are 3 million truck drivers in the U.S. In Pennsylvania, 170,000 truckers have been trained in “what to look for and how to report this horrible crime.”

“Before I was trained, I probably missed an opportunity or two,” he said. “I was in a rest area in Chillicothe, Ohio, taking my hours, and I had this young girl, about 16 years old, knock on my door and ask if I wanted a date. I really didn’t understand. Back then, you thought, ‘Why in the world would somebody be out there at this time of night.’ But now you know. I’m almost positive that she was being trafficked, and I didn’t do anything about it because I didn’t know.”

“Don’t have your head down, look around. If you see something that doesn’t look right, make that call. Call 911 and report this stuff. It does make a difference. Human trafficking is the greatest human rights violation of our time, and traffickers count on apathy and ignorance,” he said.

“I cannot overstate the depravity the victims of human trafficking endure,” Walsh told the committee. “The scourge of human trafficking is prolific across the commonwealth. The victims, they’re mothers, they’re daughters, there are some former military individuals, there are teachers. They could be anybody.”

The National Human Trafficking Hotline is 888-373-7888.

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Just in Time for Christmas, Legislature Passes Tardy PA Budget

Better late than never.

The state legislature on Wednesday passed the final “code” parts of the $44.4 billion 2023-2024 budget due June 30. Gov. Josh Shapiro signed it around 11 p.m.

Shapiro called his first budget “commonsense.”

The bills that make the spending work were delayed after Shapiro first signed the overall budget, and then used his line-item veto to block a $100 million plan to provide school choice vouchers to students in failing school districts—something he had promised to support while campaigning for governor.

The budget bills did include a $130 million increase in the private school tax credit program, bringing it to $470 million. That program allows businesses to help pay the tuition of needy students.

“I’m proud to stand here with leaders from both chambers and both parties to celebrate the investments we’re making together in repairs to school buildings, mental health resources for students, childcare, the first-ever statewide funding for indigent defense, and more. Today, we’re showing that when we come together, we can get stuff done for the good people of Pennsylvania,” Shapiro said.

Some highlights include $175 million for environmental repairs and upgrades in Pennsylvania schools, $100 million for student mental health, and $10 million for student-teacher stipends.

Other items are $7.5 million for public defenders, extending the 911 surcharge, and increasing the amount per line to $1.95. It includes budget deposits of $898 million into the Rainy Day Fund, bringing the balance to over $6.1 billion by the end of fiscal year 2024.

“Today, the General Assembly took the necessary final steps to conclude this year’s state budget and moved several bipartisan bills to help Pennsylvanians. We were able to increase the childcare tax credit and secure funding for community colleges while maintaining the fiscal solvency of the Commonwealth. We must all continue to work better together to ensure that Pennsylvanians have the certainty to chart a prosperous path forward,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland).

House Speaker Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia/Delaware) thanked her colleagues and staff members.

The budget is “most importantly a pathway forward to all the things that we can achieve next year,” said McClinton. “It’s not lost on me, as the first woman to be speaker of the Pennsylvania House, that every single day and every single bill, I’m writing a legacy for all of the women to come.”

She pointed to additional public school funding in the wake of the 10-year funding case. Money for law enforcement and public defenders “means both public safety and changing the way justice is sought and served in our commonwealth.”

“Public schools constantly balance their obligation to provide a high-quality education to students with their responsibility to be financial stewards of local tax dollars,” said Pennsylvania School Boards Association CEO Nathan Mains. “The investments in education made in this year’s budget can reduce districts’ reliance on local property taxes and direct more resources into classrooms, rather than to costly charter school tuition and pensions.”

Americans for Prosperity-PA Deputy Director Emily Greene said, “Six months late, just before the House chamber’s two-and-a-half-month break, we’re encouraged to see that both chambers, alongside the governor, have come to an agreement on how the 2023-24 general appropriations will be spent.

“The budget included a $150 million increase in the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, which signals a step in the right direction toward much-needed school choice right here in the commonwealth,” Greene said. “However, it’s going to take swift and transformational action to bring Pennsylvania’s students the choice and freedom they so deserve, which is why we continue to urge the legislature to consider universal school choice measures when both chambers finally return to Harrisburg in mid-March.”

Matt Brouillette, CEO of Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs, said, “House Democrats single-handedly blocked the state budget for five-and-a-half months over their refusal to rescue kids from failing and violent schools. They knew they were  wrong, which is why they flip-flopped and joined Republicans in supporting a historic expansion of tax credit scholarships. Now, with 2024-2025 budget season almost here, I hope Democrats will stop their partisan games at kids’ expense and join Republicans in supporting universal educational opportunity for all Pennsylvania students.”

Separately from the main budget bill, a $33 million bill for the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school failed to get the two-thirds vote it needed to pass the House.

House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) said he opposed releasing those funds because of “concerns about the way that institutional culture is.”

Even though Penn’s former president, Elizabeth Magill, resigned over her handling of antisemitism on campus and her testimony to Congress about it, “the fact that she has returned to tenured faculty actually speaks to the fact that it’s a culture problem. You can rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s still got issues, and they need to fix them.”

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Bill To Improve Breast Cancer Screening Will Go to Full House Wednesday

Like many women, Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore  Kim Ward delayed getting her annual mammogram in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And when she did that November, her doctor told her she had Stage 1 breast cancer.

“I kept thinking, jeez, if I had my mammogram on time, would they have seen it because they did not offer me an ultrasound or an MRI even though I had fibrous breast tissue? Or if I just waited until it was due again, it would probably have been Stage 2,” said Ward (R-Westmoreland).

“As it is now, many women have to pay a co-pay for an MRI or ultrasound, depending on their insurance,” she explained, noting that could cost $600 to $1,000. In talking to women, some told her they even have to pay out of pocket. And that cost can be huge if they need to pay their rent or feed their family, she said.

Ward decided to do something about it. Senate Bill 8, which passed the Senate last year and again this year, would require insurers to cover 3D mammograms, ultrasound, and MRI testing.

“One lady said, ‘I cried that day it passed because my mother had breast cancer twice. They didn’t test her for it, and they would not pay for her to have an MRI.’”

“These are the people we’re trying to ensure get the care they need,” said Ward.

SB8 is the first-of-its-kind in the nation comprehensive breast cancer screening and testing bill that eliminates all costs associated with genetic testing and counseling. It also covers breast MRIs and ultrasounds for Pennsylvanians with high-risk conditions like dense breast tissue, a personal history of breast cancer, a family history, a genetic predisposition, or prior radiation therapy.

While undergoing treatment, Ward also learned she had the BRCA gene, meaning she was among those with an 80 percent risk of developing breast cancer. But she had to pay for that test out-of-pocket because her insurance would not cover it since her mother and sister had not had breast cancer, although her grandmother and great-aunts did.

“I had the lumpectomy,” she said. “I started chemotherapy. About my third chemo treatment, my oncologist said, ‘I’m going to order you that (genetic test). And then they wouldn’t pay for it. And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to pay for it.’”

When it came back positive, she had mastectomies because, with the BRCA gene, that is the only way to be sure the cancer would not reoccur.

“It’s truly preventive,” she said about the test. Her sons and grandchildren can be tested to be sure they don’t have the gene, which can lead to an increased risk of prostate cancer. It also increases the risk of ovarian cancer.

If SB8 is passed by the House and signed into law by Gov. Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania will become the first state to require coverage for 3D mammograms at no cost to the patient. SB8 is expected to be acted on in the House on Wednesday after being unanimously passed by the House insurance committee Monday. It would include requirements that insurers pay for the testing when prescribed.

SB8 is also the first bill of its kind to require coverage of genetic testing and counseling and breast MRI and ultrasound at no cost to women at high risk.

Ward is working with House Speaker Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia/Delaware) toward advancing the bill. If it becomes law, it will help 14,000 Pennsylvania women who get breast cancer each year.

“Breast cancer is a terrible disease,” said McClinton.  “The statistics are sobering with roughly 264,000 cases of breast cancer diagnosed in women and 2,400 cases in men.  For Black women, the statistics are even more alarming, as it is the number one cause of cancer death for Black women at an alarming rate of 31 percent.

“Still there is reason for hope. Due to advances in research and science, testing and genetic counseling is now available to anyone with a family history of cancer.  This will help in the fight to early cancer diagnosis.  That said, no one should have to forgo a lifesaving important screening because they cannot afford a co-pay, deductible, or co-insurance payment.   I applaud my Senate colleagues and Senate Pro Tempore Ward, herself a survivor, for introducing this legislation and I am pleased to prioritize this bill’s movement in the House,” said McClinton.

DVJournal asked Ward if she is getting pushback from health insurers.

“Maybe a little at first,” she said. “They weren’t all the way thrilled, but they’re okay now. They’re working with us.

“This is not a red or blue issue. It is a pink issue, and we need to encourage other states to follow and ensure that women are getting regular breast examinations as ‘early detection saves lives,’” said Ward.

State Sen. Tracy Pennycuick (R-Bucks/Montgomery) said, “The overwhelming support this first-in-the-nation legislation is receiving, and its swift, unanimous passage shows just how important and prevalent these issues are in Pennsylvania. There isn’t a person in our commonwealth who hasn’t been touched by breast cancer, and, like so many others, my family knows the devastating toll this disease can have. Thank you to the House insurance committee chairman and members for their quick consideration and passage of Senate Bill 8.”

“I think that all of the proposed measures will increase access to valuable tools to preserve women’s health,” said Dr. Robert Michaelson, a retired gynecologist in Montgomery County.

Ward said she is well now and cancer free since her cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes.

“Thank God it was not in my nodes,” Ward said. But the oncologist said it was on the way to spreading, she added. If she had been tested for the BRCA gene, she would have had the mastectomies, not undergone a lumpectomy first.