Hidden Neighbors: For trafficked domestic workers, exploitation can be a family affair
On May 5, 2011, just before 10 a.m., a state police officer and a special agent from Homeland Security Investigations showed up on the doorstep of Unit 12B, in Harvard, Massachusetts, for an old-fashioned “knock and talk.” The officers wanted to speak to the residents, but they lacked a search warrant: Video surveillance and background checks they had conducted over the previous month had revealed little about the owners of the condominium, Martha and Richard Smalanskas, aside from a preference for Hondas — they had two — and Martha’s Bolivian origins. After weeks of unfruitful investigation, the officers were acting on an anonymous tip they had received at the beginning of April. Over the phone, an unnamed caller had told the police officer, Pi Heseltine, that there was a woman living in Unit 12B who spoke no English, had no friends and got no days off work — “a slave,” the source said.
It was Martha who opened the door, according to an affidavit detailing the officers’ visit. The 45-year-old Bolivian had gained U.S. citizenship in 2006; she had three school-age boys, who attended the local public school, and she ran a small interior decorating service. Richard, a stocky 46-year-old realtor, stood in the hallway behind her.
The officers needed to speak to the housekeeper, Special Agent Sean Rafferty said. She wasn’t in any trouble, he assured the Smalanskases, but he wanted to talk to her in private. Martha went to the back door and returned with her employee, who accompanied Rafferty and Heseltine to the police cruiser parked outside.
In her limited English, “Eva” — who will remain anonymous, as she was in court documents and still is to me — described her arrival in the U.S. and aspects of her life with the Smalanskases. She had started working for them in Bolivia at the age of 16. When the family relocated to Massachusetts, she had joined them, entering the U.S. on a temporary visa in 1997. Now she was 35, and the Smalanskases had never let her go home. She could not escape, she told the officers, and started to cry. She agreed to continue the conversation at the state police barracks in Concord, 13 miles away. Eva stayed in the car as Heseltine went back to tell the Smalanskases what was happening.
As the officers pulled away, Martha came outside to speak to her former employee. Do not say anything to them, she warned Eva. Ask for an attorney. Within minutes, Martha, the gabled roof and the green door of Unit 12B had disappeared behind Eva and the officers. For the second time in her life, Eva was being transported away from an ambivalent home on another’s initiative, not knowing when or if she would return or where, exactly, she was headed.
To get to Unit 12B from my childhood home in Harvard, I take a left at the end of my road, drive straight for about 10 minutes, turn left onto Gebo Lane a mile or so past the local police station and take the left that brings me to McCurdy Track. I pull up next to the picturesque neighborhood called Harvard Green Condominiums, where colonial look-alikes ring a large center lawn. When I visited last fall, the neighborhood exuded mom and pop whimsy: door hangings instructed, “Give thanks”; a doormat punned, “I am Mat.” Residents clad in cardigans walked their dogs and waved to their neighbors. There was a high school soccer game going on across the street, and a small crowd had congregated on the road to watch. About 10 yards from the outermost spectators stood the brown colonial with white trim where Eva had lived and worked in secret for over 13 years.
In the U.S., a large, underpublicized population of migrant domestic workers labors behind closed doors. Many have been trafficked, meaning they have been transported or harbored through coercion, force or fraud for the purpose of exploitation. In 2015, The Boston Globe reported several cases of domestic worker trafficking in the Boston area, including Eva’s. (In the Globe, she is called “CB,” which is the pseudonym used in court documents.) In Newton, a wealthy suburb, a Filipina migrant named Catherine Piedad called 911 after her employers confiscated her passport and prohibited her from leaving the house. Also in Newton, Elvia Morales Cruz, a Guatemalan nanny, went underpaid and underfed while she cared for a medical malpractice lawyer’s six children. In Chestnut Hill, Noiva Ferreira de Resende, a Brazilian housekeeper, sought help after her employer, an executive vice president of Santander Bank, did not let her leave the house for 15 days straight. A diplomat left Edilene Moraes Almeida, who was ill with a brain tumor, in Boston when she decided not to accompany his family to Brazil, where he had been reassigned; according to Almeida’s lawyer, the diplomat owed Almeida tens of thousands of dollars in overtime.
Such lists, experts and activists say, are far from exhaustive. In a statement emailed to me, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey noted, “Labor trafficking is happening right here in our own communities.” In 2017, domestic work was the sector with the highest number of nonsexual labor trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline. Yet there are no official statistics on the human trafficking of domestic workers.
The nature of the crime might help explain the blind spot: Its character is local, but its scale is global. The International Labour Organization estimates that the nearly 21 million people in forced labor situations worldwide generate $150 billion in illegal profits per year; of that number, $8 million come from trafficking. (The organization does not provide a breakdown of the $8 million into types of labor, but experts say domestic worker trafficking accounts for a significant portion of private-sector illegal profits.) Given the magnitude of financial gain, it is striking that most cases of domestic worker trafficking do not involve professional recruiters or large-scale trafficking schemes. Instead, they often involve close relationships and personal connections. Sometimes, they involve family.
In December 2014, Letícia Souza, a migrant worker from the city of Serra in Espírito Santo, Brazil, was trafficked by her in-laws to New Bedford, a suburb of Boston, along with her husband and son. I learned about her case, which has yet to appear in a newspaper, through the Brazilian Women’s Group, a community and advocacy organization based in Brighton, Massachusetts. The winter of her arrival, Letícia toiled through nights on orders from her brother-in-law, who restricted the Souzas’ food to leftovers, their sleep to two hours some days and their bathroom usage to once per day. Letícia and her husband, Herickson, cleaned auto dealerships and restaurants for 18 hours on end, seven days per week, for three months before they had both the resolve and the resources to leave.
When we spoke in her apartment, Letícia wore a sequined T-shirt that read “ABSOLUTELY AWESOME” and offered me coffee until I accepted. The 28-year-old stands just over 5 feet tall, with a compact build and a slow, warm smile. She has a resonant voice and a steadiness that undergirds her strong sense of justice. Herickson was not home when I visited, but Letícia’s son, Erick, who is 11 years old, crept into the kitchen during our conversation. His big brown eyes shone — Erick smiles with his whole face — but he could not be persuaded to say a word.
Unlike Eva, when Letícia met her employers, she had the advantages of a college education, a nuclear family of her own and adulthood. But when family members become traffickers — or when traffickers come to feel like family — it can be hard for anyone to “see what’s happening,” as Letícia says, and harder yet to act.
“When you say human trafficking, people picture someone being tied up, but sometimes it’s not like that,” Letícia explained.
“It happens to people who know things,” she said. “It happens with family.”
In recent years, the term “modern slavery” has gained popularity in public discourse. It refers to human trafficking, and it is meant to encompass the wide range of abuses that can accompany trafficking crimes, including sexual and economic exploitation. Insofar as it has raised awareness about human trafficking, the term has been successful. But some scholars say its success is undermined by the misconceptions and false associations that the term has propagated. Janie Chuang, a law professor at American University and an expert in human trafficking, told me that modern-slavery rhetoric often focuses on sex trafficking, perpetuating a “continuing sense that trafficking is about sex and not labor.”
“People want to be modern-day abolitionists,” Chuang told me. But for trafficked workers, the decision to migrate, Chuang said, is often an “exercise in agency,” and the decision to stay can be complicated. Further, the imagery associated with American slavery — chains, agricultural labor, confinement, outright violence, rape — does not always capture the reality of the crime.
Nonsexual labor trafficking can be mundane and uncinematic, involving minor deceptions, breached contracts and excessive overtime. Within a week of her arrival, for example, Eva lost possession of her passport. Martha’s brother, who had flown with Eva to the U.S., came to retrieve it, according to an affidavit. The passport needed stamping, he said, and the stamping had to happen in Bolivia — a justification which may or may not have been true.
Over the next decade, Eva never learned to drive, which, in rural Harvard, would have effectively limited her to the short list of attractions in the center of town — the general store, the town library, a Catholic church, a Congregational church, a Unitarian church and the local elementary and high schools. Her paperwork had expired, her employers told her, so she would not be able to get a license. She biked or walked when she was granted permission to leave the house. Martha warned her not to talk to strangers, reasoning that Eva could get herself and the family in trouble if someone found out that her documents had expired. Once or twice a month, Eva told federal prosecutors, Martha would get angry. She would pull Eva’s hair, berate her, scratch her and slap her, Eva said.
For over a decade, Eva cooked, cleaned and cared for the Smalanskas children from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday, plus Saturday hours, at a rate that rose from $100 to $150 per month. The Smalanskases handled Eva’s finances as many parents would a teenager’s. They paid for her food, but she bought some of her clothing and toiletries. When Eva could not afford her own computer, Martha gifted her $100 to buy one. Eva’s status floated ambiguously between adolescent, adult and child: Her expenditures reflected those of a college freshman half-relying on parental funds for basic necessities; her hours added up to two full-time jobs. Her pay amounted to an oft-forgotten allowance.
Martha kept track of expenses accrued by and debts owed to Eva in a red logbook, tucked in a brown binder. (In a search of the condominium, police found it wedged underneath a couch cushion in the living room.) When Eva’s employers withheld her pay, the logbook — a convenient but valueless stand-in for the wages it recorded — would have kept up the appearance of employer accountability. On the day of her departure, Eva had received only $2,500 for over 13 years of work — less than five cents per hour.
Around noon on December 14, 2014, Letícia arrived in Boston feeling hopeful. It was a Sunday and uncharacteristically warm; the temperature outside hovered in the low 40s. Letícia was disoriented — 16 hours ago, she had been breathing tropical air — but she had reason to feel secure. Her husband, Herickson, and her son, Erick, were by her side; her in-laws, Donny and Milene Sousa, were waiting for them in the airport. (“Sousa” and Letícia’s last name, “Souza,” are, in this case, unrelated variations on a common Brazilian surname.) Letícia and Herickson had jobs lined up and, along with their son, a place to live. Donny and Milene, Herickson’s sister, would be their employers and their landlords. The Sousas ran a cleaning business.
When Letícia met them in the airport, though, Donny’s shabby clothes and Milene’s sickly complexion made her feel uneasy. Her worry grew as Donny sped home to New Bedford. Inside the car, Coca-Cola products, fast-food wrappers, and old clothes littered the floor and seats. This isn’t right, Letícia thought. The Sousas were supposed to be wealthy.
Four hours later, Donny put Letícia and Herickson to work. From then on, every day from 6 p.m. to 12 p.m., they did heavy-duty cleaning — not the light spraying and dusting they had been told to expect. At first, Letícia told me, she and her husband fought. She believed that his relationship with his sister was making it difficult for him to understand the reality of the situation. She felt that he was “going through an illusion.”
“This is normal here,” Herickson would say.
“You are not seeing what’s happening,” Letícia would reply.
Erick, who was 8 at the time, stayed home while his parents worked. Milene, despite Letícia’s entreaties, had refused to enroll him in school, citing his lack of documentation. Erick was hungry during the day and lonely, Letícia told me. In the evening, he often begged his mother to take him with her to work.
“A lot of people say, ‘But he was part of your family,’” Letícia said, speaking about Donny. “What he has done, if it was just with me, I think I could let it go. But what he has done — the things that he made my son go through — it’s something that I can’t forgive.”
In the beginning, conflicts took the form of small arguments, honesties and deceits. They built up over time. One day, Herickson got his sister in the car by herself. She was too submissive toward her husband, he worried, and he wondered if she was all right. He told her, “I’m afraid he’s going to hurt you,” according to Letícia. They talked and cried together, but that evening, Milene reported the conversation to Donny, who berated Herickson for insinuating that he was “the type of man that hits a woman.”
Feeling betrayed, Herickson began to believe what Letícia says she knew the whole time — that this life was not normal, even in America.
Why do some domestic workers stay with abusive employers?
In my interviews with experts and activists, the most frequently cited barriers to escape were logistical ones and coercion. Michael Paarlberg, who co-authored a 2017 report by the Institute of Policy Studies and the National Domestic Workers Alliance on the human trafficking of domestic workers, cited withholding of documents and deportation threats. “It’s an exploitable relationship, and employers know that,” Paarlberg said. Marzena Zukowska, a community organizer at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said that entanglement of police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement has “eroded a lot of trust,” to the point where migrant workers are too “paranoid” to report abuse.
Most migrant domestic workers enter the country lawfully, but their legal status is fragile. Under U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the administrative arm of the Department of Homeland Security that handles visas, domestic workers following their employers to the U.S. are eligible to apply for B-1 visas. These visas afford workers temporary legal status as long as they remain with their original employers, whose names are listed on the employment authorization document — a supplemental form that domestic workers are required to submit as part of their visa applications. As a result of the policy, in cases of exploitation, workers may choose not to report abuse for fear of losing their legal status.
The Smalanskases, through their lawyers, maintain that theirs was “far from being a typical employer-employee relationship,” as reported by The Boston Globe. When I called Martha last October and asked her about the court case, she said, “I don’t know what story you’re talking about,” and hung up. One of her sons was less abrupt. Over Facebook Messenger, he thanked me for my interest in his side of the story but said the topic was too sensitive to discuss.
In the Smalanskas household, exploitation took many typical forms — among them, the withholding of already-low wages (an abuse reported by 85 percent of domestic workers surveyed for a 2017 National Domestic Workers Alliance report), the withholding of documents (62 percent), overlong hours (73 percent) and isolation (75 percent). Language barriers, intimidation and financial dependence can build shadow walls behind a home’s material ones. Indeed, factors like these shape the experiences of many migrant domestic workers and have come to define prevailing narratives about labor trafficking and forced labor. Yet certain cases still defy reason.
Five months had passed since the day the police knocked on the door of Unit 12B, and Eva was, by all objective accounts, free. It was October 2011; she was staying in a shelter, and a federal court case was underway against Martha and Richard Smalanskas. The last time Eva had seen Martha had been in May, through the window of the police cruiser as it pulled away from the condo complex.
The Smalanskases’ three boys were on Eva’s mind. One of the children, middle school–age, had a birthday coming up.
Eva called Martha, hoping to wish the youngest child a happy birthday. Over the phone, Eva could hear Martha crying, according to the affidavit detailing the call. How was Eva doing, Martha wanted to know, and when would they see each other again?
Eva, surprised that Martha was not angry with her, agreed to visit the family. She would take the train and meet the Smalanskases at the station; Martha would keep the plan secret from the boys to sweeten the surprise.
The next week, Martha and the birthday boy set off for the train station. Martha had told her son that they would be picking up a puppy, but, when they arrived, she admitted that there was no puppy. They had come to pick up someone better.
After the birthday visit, Eva would see the family three more times in three months: once on New Year’s Eve and twice to watch the boys play in basketball games. At first, Eva hid her return visits from the court. Her omission constituted perjury and complicated her case. Federal prosecutor Thomas Kanwit, in an interview, tried to elucidate Eva’s feelings toward the Smalanskases. Did she want to return to them?
Yes, Eva began — she would “love to go back to them.”
“This has been a nightmare,” she said, according to a summary of the interview in an affidavit. Then she clarified: The nightmare was living in a shelter full of drug addicts, and it was not that she wanted to go back for good — she just worried about the children. She did not want them to lose their parents to prison.
Eva told Kanwit that she had faced repeated physical abuse (hitting, scratching, pulling hair) by Martha and emotional intimidation (yelling, taunting) by both husband and wife. (The defense denied all charges of abuse.) Kanwit asked Eva about the time Richard punched a hole in the wall and the time she fell down the stairs and hurt her back. Martha had grabbed her, he offered, and then had released her suddenly after an argument. Eva confirmed.
“You did not have any friends of your own in the United States, did you?” Kanwit asked Eva in an investigative interview.
“No,” she replied.
“Your life was really all about the children, wasn’t it?”
Heloisa Galvão, the executive director of the Brazilian Women’s Group in Brighton, Massachusetts, was the one who picked up the phone when Herickson called for help in March 2014. Galvão, a middle-aged Brazilian-American with a curly orange bob and a fast way of talking, told me that when she got the call, the Souzas did not have a name for the crimes that had been committed against them. Though Letícia may not have known the term “human trafficking,” Galvão said, she knew “the rights she has as a human.”
The situation in the Sousa household had recently escalated. In late February, at the kitchen table, Herickson confronted Donny about his and Letícia’s missing wages. Donny got up and left, Letícia recalled, and returned with two guns. He placed them on the table, and said, “Here in this land, nobody owns me, and I don’t own anybody.” He paid them $800 — a fraction of the $6,000 he owed them. Within a month, despite continued wage theft, Letícia and Herickson managed to find an apartment with a security deposit they could afford. One night, in secret, they left.
“We got our stuff together. We put it in a plastic bag, and we left,” Letícia told me. “The first night, I was in front of the heater. I got my winter jackets, and I got my son and my husband. We hugged each other, and we slept there with no fear. We could use the bathroom at night. I felt free in that time.”
The next few weeks saw a flurry of change. After Herickson and Letícia quit their jobs, Donny started harassing them with phone calls, demanding that they pay him back for the plane tickets and visas he had bought for them. As Herickson and Letícia drove home from their last day of work, Donny called Herickson and told him, “You are not a man,” according to Letícia. “If you don’t pay me, I’m going to chase you,” Donny said. “I will go to where you are.”
On the way to the police station to report Donny, Letícia prayed that one of the officers on duty spoke Portuguese — and one did. (It was a stroke of luck but not a miracle: New Bedford has a large Brazilian population.) Herickson called the Brazilian Women’s Group and spoke to Galvão, who set the Souzas up with another volunteer and the lawyer that helped them obtain a restraining order against Donny.
On October 4, 2016, Donny Sousa was indicted for human trafficking, larceny, assault and wage theft, according to a press release from Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s office. For three months of work, Herickson and Letícia had gotten $3,600 and three days off. Though the case is ongoing, they have built new lives for themselves in the U.S. They have successfully applied for U visas — a special type for victims of trafficking who have “suffered substantial mental or physical abuse as a result of the crime” — which means they will not be deported and can work in the U.S. legally. They work long hours, but they are treated fairly. Letícia told me, “I am living my dream.”
When asked, in an investigative interview in June 2012, whether what the Smalanskases did was wrong, Eva said she would not want it to happen to someone else. But testifying against the Smalanskases was difficult. The legal process was “putting me between a rock and a hard place,” she said. She worried, still, about what her employers thought of her: Eva believed that the Smalanskases would hate her for telling the truth, according to a summary of her testimony in an affidavit.
Why did Martha hit her and yell at her? Maybe sometimes Eva did not do what Martha wanted, Eva suggested to federal prosecutors. Still, she said, “I can’t explain why Martha did things to me.”
In the indictment filed in September 2012, a grand jury charged Martha and Richard Smalanskas with counts of conspiracy, harboring an illegal alien and harboring an illegal alien for financial gain. The case was settled in a plea bargain. If it had gone to trial and they had been convicted, the Smalanskases would have faced 10-year prison sentences, a fine of $250,000, and three years of supervised release. Instead, they ended up with one year of probation and an order to pay $150,000 in restitution, after showing sufficient evidence that they did not have the financial resources to pay Eva all that she was owed.
Galvão, the director of the Brazilian Women’s Group, wonders how many cases of labor trafficking slip under the radar. The reason she does not hear about more cases like Letícia’s, she suspects, is that victims are too afraid to seek help or unable, for whatever reason, to recognize their situations as trafficking and their employers’ actions as illegal. Letícia’s “natural instinct” for right and wrong, Galvão said, is exceptional. When we spoke, Letícia told me, “It’s very hard for me to say this, but this is what I need to do. … This is my duty.”
“Things cannot stay hidden, debaixo do tapete,” Letícia concluded, using a Portuguese idiom akin to the English “swept under the rug.”
In the 19 years that Eva worked for the Smalanskases, including time in Bolivia, two homes were bought and two babies were born. When Eva gave testimony for the first time, in 2012, she still had no idea how law enforcement found her. Her bewilderment suggests that she did nothing to prompt the search or to facilitate the discovery. In May 2011, the officers who found the woman in Unit 12B and the logbook under the couch cushion only did so because someone had noticed, after 13 years, that something troubling was happening in the house on the green.
“Things cannot stay hidden under the carpet.”
Portuguese translation by Estefani Oliveira.