Forensic scientist Timothy Palmbach spent his 8-month sabbatical from the University of New Haven in Connecticut (UNH) visiting Eastern Europe, Central America, South Asia, and East Africa—not for a vacation, but to use modern DNA analysis to investigate and help prosecute cases of human trafficking.
His goal is to build a database of DNA samples collected from brothels and combine it with DNA already being collected from girls who are missing, abused, or in transport. The database will give law enforcement officials a prosecutorial tool to match against crime scene evidence, which should lead to more convictions for traffickers.
Working with local law enforcement officials, Palmbach and his field partner Jeff Blom posed as tourists and infiltrated trafficking network brothels in Costa Rica and Nepal to collect DNA samples from sex trafficking victims. In Croatia and Bosnia, they received an unequivocal welcome from officials to do their work. The Ethiopian and Djibouti governments were less certain. The need there is great, Palmbach said, and they are negotiating with those governments for access.
“It’s dangerous and it’s challenging, but it can be done.” Palmbach said. The idea for his unconventional project started about two years ago when he felt the Holy Spirit prompting him that something was missing from his work. He said he spent time in prayer, fasting, and working with his pastor before realizing that along with his skill set in forensic science, God had given him a passion to strike a blow to human trafficking.
“Why is it we live in this era when forensic science has really made a difference, but in the world of human trafficking it seems like we’re not getting anywhere?” Palmbach asked. “It didn’t make any sense to me.”
As chairman of the Forensic Science Department at UNH, Palmbach enlisted help from his university colleagues to research how often people are arrested for human trafficking and was disappointed to find that it was rare. What’s the prosecution rate? Almost none. If traffickers are prosecuted, what’s the severity of their sentence? Minimal at best. “I don’t understand it, but that’s the reality,” he said.
Human trafficking presents a two-fold problem for law enforcement. First, the victims often can’t be identified. They can’t be counted beyond estimates because they move transnationally and can’t be tracked. Any paperwork they may have had, including passports, no longer exists. Second, it’s nearly impossible to prosecute a trafficker. “You have this 16-year-old girl who has been raped and tortured and moved, with not a shell of dignity left, and you throw her into a court system in a foreign country facing perpetrators who beat and raped her daily and expect her to give a glowing testimony that ends up in a conviction?” Palmbach asked. “That can’t possibly happen.”
He took a look at the tools he uses in his forensic work and realized that while it may not be cheap or easy, it is possible to collect DNA and over time build a database to check against crime scene evidence. Solid DNA evidence can tip the “he-said, she-said” balance in the victim’s favor.
By building databases from trafficking hotspots around the world and eventually creating an international DNA database, Palmbach hopes his approach will take down whole networks of 50 brothels or more. Without convicting the high-level criminals, Palmbach fears the pimps will only rebuild. So far, Palmbach has also presented his project in Poland and Guatemala. He has assurances from the Vatican that Pope Francis is passionate about addressing the problem in Latin America and Mexico. Domestically, he’s setting his sights on Texas and Pennsylvania, and he is beginning a collaboration with DNA Prokids, an anti-trafficking organization at the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification and Spain’s University of Granada Genetic Identification Laboratory.
Acquiring the right equipment and processing the DNA specimens collected by experienced investigators traveling in and out of countries requires major funding. Palmbach works with Blom, a fellow believer and founder of Global Sentry Group, a non-governmental organization aimed to reduce the threat of sexual predators. Blom has extensive law enforcement experience in international undercover operations and evidence gathering.
Anyone attempting to infiltrate a brothel is subjected to a body search and a metal detector. “And there’s always the madam suspicious of who we are and what we’re doing,” Palmbach said. That he was able to enter the brothels he visited was God’s doing, he said.
Palmbach believes the work that he’s doing is bigger than his own safety: “I choose to do this because I have no choice. My faith is such that I don’t even ask the question. People will ask why I’m going to East Africa. It’s dangerous. Yes, it’s crazy dangerous, but it’s not for me to worry. God says do it.”