Child Trafficking in the U.S. – See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

Women in the World 2011 Child Trafficking panel

Women in the World 2011 Child Trafficking panel.

I’ve never thought much about Ashley Judd one way or the other. She has always struck me as a nice enough person (insofar as you can tell these things from interviews and magazine articles). However, after seeing her speak at the Women in the World 2011: Stories and Solutions summit, I will never dismiss her as someone I don’t know much about again – if I had the chance, I would be friends with this woman.

Judd was on the agenda to be a part of a panel on child trafficking in the U.S., and I didn’t know what to expect. Was she just going to introduce the panel? Actually take part? When the session started, she came out onto the stage alone, and her knowledge, commitment and story completely captivated me.

She spoke about her work fighting against child and labor trafficking for the last seven years, and about how, recently, its ugliness and cruelty had scarred her own life. She struggled to keep from crying as she told us how her friend’s daughter, a fourteen-year-old girl she had known from birth and held in her arms all of her life, had recently been held against her will and forced into prostitution for five days before the authorities found her.

After an argument, the girl ran away from her parents in the Atlanta airport and was later picked up by a pimp. Judd held it together as she told us how this girl had been forced to have sex with up to fifteen different partners each day, how she had aged in just that short amount of time and looked hard and worn, how she had bruises on her body and now has multiple STDs. Judd didn’t break down on stage, but there were tears throughout the audience.

The title of the panel was No Such Thing: Trafficking of Girls in the United States. It refers to two things: the denial we all want to cling to – that this doesn’t happen here in the U.S. – and that there is no such thing as children consenting to sex. The panel consisted of:

The Honorable Jeanine Pirro, TV Host, former District Attorney and Judge
Ashley Judd, Activist and Actor
Sharon Cooper, MD, FAAP, CEO of Developmental and Forensic Pediatrics, P.A.
Doug Justus, Retired Portland Police Sergeant
Malika Saada Saar, Founder and Executive Director, The Rebecca Project for Human Rights

The Facts – We See No Evil

Saar began by laying out the numbers – 100,000 to 300,000 children (most of them girls) in the U.S. are subject to sexual violence and trafficking every year. Most of the girls are between the ages of 11-14 and are American-born. Saar stated that there are more American-born girls being trafficked for sex than foreign nationals. She said, “These girls are not seen as the victims of child rape. These girls are seen as the bad girls.” So it’s easier to look away. To ignore the problem.

Saar went on to say that most of these girls are escaping a home where they were sexually violated, but that act makes them vulnerable to trafficking. Our society encourages women who are being abused to run away from the situation, but when girls run, they have few resources and become easy targets for pimps.

One of the problems, Dr. Cooper explained, is that the age of puberty for girls is getting younger, with girls’ breasts beginning to develop around age nine, and their bodies becoming sexually mature by age 13 to 14. However, girls’ brains are not fully mature until around age 22. This combination makes girls vulnerable to being taken in by pimps in sheep’s clothing who turn them into “compliant victims.” Cooper says they conduct extensive training on how to spot victims, because people have a hard time seeing the victims in these cases.

A Victimless Crime? – We Hear No Evil

In 2000, a federal law was passed outlawing sex trafficking. Currently, sex trafficking is only second to drug trafficking, and the punishment for buyers and sellers is substantially less, if it is prosecuted at all. Men are learning that it’s easier to sell a girl. Girls are reusable. The men who sell them are rarely prosecuted and the men who buy them are rarely prosecuted. If they are, the penalties are usually a fine or a misdemeanor. That makes trafficking in girls a very attractive business.

Pirro said that she looked up the statistics for prosecutions of sex trafficking in New York City (which is a major hub) for 2009. In addition to the federal law, New York has its own trafficking law. Can you guess how many prosecutions there were? Eight. For the entire year. In the first six months of 2010, she reported six prosecutions on record. I wonder how many prosecutions of underage child prostitutes there were during that same period.

Doug Justus admitted that when he took a new position in the Portland Police Department pursuing sex offenders and traffickers, they asked him how he would get the District Attorney’s Office to prosecute his cases. He was surprised. He had been a detective for 27 years and always had his cases prosecuted, but once he began his new role, that changed. No one wanted to listen.

Justus said, “I hate to say this, but it’s a man’s world. Men run the court system…When I would walk in there, they would say, ‘it’s a victimless crime, they are consenting adults, and the community doesn’t care because it’s behind closed doors.’” They don’t have to see, and they don’t want to hear.

He goes on to tell about a case where they had a valid search warrant, gathered solid evidence, and when he submitted it, he was pulled aside and told, “Don’t ever bring that here again, good luck in the future, and this conversation never happened.”

We Don’t Apply the Laws in Place to Buyers and Sellers – We Speak No Evil

So who is the criminal? “We criminalize the girl,” Saar said. “This is the only instance of child abuse where we put the child behind bars.” She goes on to say that we don’t need new laws, we simply need to apply the laws we already have to the buyers and sellers, and not use them against the girls.

There are less than 100 beds available for domestic victim treatment. So even if a judge does listen, where can they send a girl to be safe? Not to the abusive home that drove her onto the streets, not back to her pimp, so where? The answer, most often, is into a detention center where they feel hurt, ashamed, criminalized, and further victimized.

[Author’s note: I wondered about foster care, but this panel didn’t address that avenue. Perhaps the panel members believe that in foster care these girls would not have access to the type of counseling they need after such victimization.]

The panel went on to discuss the high-profile cases of Lawrence Taylor and Jeffrey Epstein, wealthy buyers who were given light sentences. In May 2010, Ex-NFL player Lawrence Taylor was arrested after paying a 16-year-old runaway for sexual acts. In January 2011, he pled guilty to two misdemeanors and received no jail time.

After a lengthy investigation into multiple counts of child prostitution spanning years, Palm Beach millionaire Jeffrey Epstein pled guilty to felony solicitation of prostitution and procuring a person under the age of 18 for prostitution. He received a sentence of 18 months in jail, but only served 13 months and went to work every day. During his additional year of house arrest, he visited his home in New York and his Caribbean island.

And what about the men? Who are they, these consumers of innocence? Judd said, “They are our fathers, our brothers, our husbands, uncles, cousins and friends. The guy who gets out of the taxi before you get in, the one on the stairmaster next to you at the gym. It is so common.”

Let Them Be Seen, Be Heard, and Have a Voice

There is a determined attitude to see these girls as bad kids, prostitutes, asking for it, there by choice. We don’t see them, we don’t listen to them, and no one speaks up for them. And the numbers continue to grow. How do we change that way of thinking?

Saar believes that we need to see this for what it is: not child prostitution, but child rape. Underage children cannot consent to sex under any circumstances. The children are the victims and the buyers and traffickers are the criminals.

We need to hear the victims. Saar spearheaded the removal of the Adult Services section from Craigslist. Several victims Saar was working with decided to write a letter to Craig Newmark, owner of Craigslist, describing their experience of being sold through the Adult Services section. Instead of publishing their letter as an opinion piece, and exposing it to censure, they ran it as an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle (Newmark’s hometown paper). A month later, they ran the same ad in The Washington Post, and four weeks later, the site was shut down.

We all can speak – in words and actions.

Judd suggested we start by attacking the marketing that sexualizes girls at a young age. “We absolutely have to push back against the continuing sexualization of children…We have to complain to our retailers who sell clothing for children that is extremely age-inappropriate, we have to boycott products, and we have to let media outlets ranging from MTV to network TV know that that stuff is simply not acceptable, and I think that women at the household level are going to be the ones who have to organize this rally cry and resistance.” Men seeing children as sexual beings is a growing problem.

Saar adds that:

• 1 in 4 girls will have been sexually violated by the time she reaches the age of 18
• 60% of female victims of rape are raped under the age of 18

A small organization called Text to Change in Africa is raising awareness of child sex trafficking in Cameroon using cell phones. It would be great if there were some way to expand that idea in the U.S. In some cities people can report potholes and traffic problems to their municipalities using their cell phones – it would be helpful to be able to report cases of suspected trafficking directly to police departments in the same way. And, in any way possible, we should tell our legislators that they should take these cases seriously and prosecute.

Girls in both the U.S. and abroad have a tough time being children. Their childhoods have become minefields, and we must speak up and say that children should be able to be kids longer. You don’t have to be a parent to affect the next generation of girls and boys.

Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell is a Michigan-based writer specializing in corporate social responsibility, women’s issues, and the environment.