In wealthy Westchester County, a dark secret is hiding in the shadows of multimillion-dollar mansions and well-manicured lawns, as hundreds of men and women are being forced to do hard labor against their will.
In a Turn to Tara special series, News 12 investigative reporter Tara Rosenblum spent the last eight months finding out that labor trafficking is happening right now as we speak, mostly to immigrants, lured to Westchester with false promises of big paychecks.
Officials estimate that 14 million people are victims of labor trafficking. Locally, it’s taking place in the safest and nicest neighborhoods. In part three of the four–part series, Rosenblum shares, for the very first time, a stunning story of modern-day slavery that happened in Harrison
One example is a woman, an African immigrant, who was forced to do hard labor at a prominent ambassador’s mansion in Westchester. The proud mother of four, who asked News 12 to refer to her as HC, went from being a part-time vegetable vendor in her native Africa to a full-time human slave in a mansion, in one of Westchester’s most affluent neighborhoods.
Like so many other victims of labor trafficking, her journey began across oceans…in a rural African village, where hope and food were in short supply. “There’s nothing, no money, no food,” says HC. She was making around $200 a month, so when the ambassador of her country invited her to come to America as his own personal housekeeper, earning $2,400 a month, her answer was, “I said praise to God.”
Two weeks later, HC was on a plane to New York. Her passport taken during the ride to the ambassador’s multimillion-dollar Harrison home. At 5 a.m. the next day, HC says the ambassador’s wife forced her to work around-the-clock shifts, cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry and caring for a young infant. HC, a diabetic, says they refused her medication and only allowed her to eat leftovers from the meals she prepared. Her fear became impossible to escape. “They threatened to kill me because they were afraid of me going out in the public.”
Heat index of hotel incidents. Areas in red indicate higher activity.
After six tortuous months, she finally decided to escape through the garage. “I didn’t know where I was going. I just followed the road.” HC wound up at a deli a mile away where the owner called police, who called My Sister’s Place, an emergency shelter for people fleeing abuse. “They actually set up an alarm that would trip on her bedroom door every time she would leave. There was closed monitoring and that’s a key element to human trafficking — that people don’t have freedom of movement. HC wasn’t chained up, she wasn’t shackled to a wall, but she was trapped within the walls of that home,” says Rebecca DeSimone, of My Sister’s Place,
HC’s story was all too familiar to DeSimone, who runs the organization’s human trafficking program. “Human trafficking is occurring in every city and every town. Every location in Westchester County, it’s hiding just beneath the surface, right beneath our noses.” DeSimone says her organization served more than 100 clients in 2017. “These are folks in our communities, in our neighborhoods. We live side by side…they are running errands, they are going [to] grocery stores, they are serving our food, cleaning our hotels rooms, gardening, landscaping, but they are not free.”
DeSimone says the goal is to turn more victims into survivors, like HC. Today, HC is a free woman fighting for justice. A few months ago, the Department of Labor ordered the ambassador to pay her back $10,000 in lost wages and the State Department is looking into the possibility of criminal charges despite his diplomatic status. “To the people who are being abused — you have to come out and be strong. Just come out and say something. Maybe someone will hear what you are crying for and get help like what My Sister’s Place did for me.”
However, the FBI says legal outcomes like HC’s are rare. In fact, out of the 100 victims who landed at My Sister’s Place last year, less than 10 percent of them ended with guilty convictions. “To the extent that sexual trafficking is a hard case to investigate and prosecute, labor trafficking is even more difficult because sex trafficking is commonly associated with U.S. citizens, whereas labor trafficking and domestic servitude matters are commonly associated with immigrants seeking us citizenship. So with that hanging over their heads, those that facilitate labor trafficking will threaten deportation, somehow removing them from [the] country, or report to us, which make difficult to prosecute,” says an FBI agent.