Up to 27 million people around the world are held in some form of slavery, but last year only 46,500 of them were identified, according to the 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report issued by the U.S. State Department.
Identifying and rescuing child victims of sex trafficking is particularly difficult.
Traffickers prey on the most vulnerable children in our society, such as runaways or children in foster care. These girls — often as young as 9 or 10 — already have tragic lives. Nationally, 95 percent of teen girls arrested on prostitution charges were victims of sexual abuse earlier in their lives.
They're easy prey for pimps because they’re desperately looking for someone to love and care for them. So when a would-be pimp befriends them, lavishing them with attention, clothes, food and shelter, it doesn’t take long for a girl to fall in "love" with her “benefactor,” and comply when he asks her to help him make money.
The pimp alternates between making the girl believe she loves him, and physically and emotionally forcing her into prostitution. These girls are forced to turn 20 tricks a day, which brings in big money for the pimp. We're seeing gangs abandon the drug trade and turn to sex trafficking because it's far more lucrative and less likely to earn them any serious jail time.
At least 100,000 children in the United States are victims of commercial sexual exploitation, according to a report of the findings of a 2012 National Colloquium on the issue.
What can we do to end child sex trafficking? Here are some solutions:
1. Enact stiff penalties for traffickers and johns. For a long time, those who purchased sex did not face criminal prosecution, while those who sold it or promoted it did. While that is beginning to change, the punishment for johns is still no more than a slap on the wrist. As for the pimps, even if they are arrested, they're often back on the street the next day while the girls remain in custody. We need to enact severe criminal penalties for people who solicit children for sex as well as those who traffic in children. Significant jail time should be mandatory for both.
2. Treat commercially sexually exploited children as victims, not criminals. Thanks to the growing global focus on human trafficking, law enforcement agencies and first responders are finally beginning to receive the training they need to recognize an exploited child. An act of prostitution involving a child is an act of child rape. These children don't need to be arrested. They need to be rescued. Los Angeles County's STAR Court is one example of an innovative approach to this tragedy. STAR stands for Succeed Through Achievement and Resilience. The program provides under-aged girls arrested for solicitation with resources to help them become independent, productive adults. Via a holistic approach, a girl's probation officer, social worker, mentor and school counselor all work together to ensure that she stays on track. The girl and her support team regularly report back to the court on her progress.
3. Help sexually exploited children transition out of "the life" by supporting organizations that provide support services. For many of the under-aged girls arrested for soliciting prostitution, it's a revolving door. They go back to the "the life" because they have no other options. These girls need temporary and long-term housing, medical and psychological care, educational services, mentoring and job training. When communities rally to provide this support, they can help them heal emotionally and physically, thereby transforming their lives.
Consider donating your time and financial support to one of the many worthy organizations that serve sexually exploited children, such as Saving Innocence, MISSSEY (Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth), GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services) and CAST (The Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking).
(About the writer: Pamela Samuels Young is an award-winning novelist and managing counsel for Labor and Employment Law for a major corporation in Southern California. Described by one reviewer as “John Grisham with a sister’s twist,” her six legal thrillers include “Buying Time,” winner of the American Library Association’s Black Caucus' 2010 Fiction Award. “Anybody’s Daughter” is her newest novel. A former journalist, Young began her broadcasting career with WXYZ-TV in Detroit and later worked as a news writer and associate producer for KCBS-TV in Los Angeles. She is also a sought-after motivational speaker.)