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California Tries — With Difficulty — to Implement 2 Major New Laws to Help Sex-Trafficked Kids

California is attempting to switch to a victim-centered approach for its sexually trafficked youngsters. But despite the passage of two important and well-intentioned new laws in the last two years, both of which affect youth who have been sexually exploited, change has not come easily or quickly.

The initial goals for those who work with trafficked youngsters are in many ways heartbreakingly basic, said Diane Iglesias, senior deputy director of the state Department of Children and Family Services. After identifying the affected young people and getting them into a support network, she said, workers hope to persuade their traumatized charges not to run away from their safe housing and back to their pimps who, while abusive, are at least familiar. Only once the cycle of running away is broken, she said, can the trafficked young people embrace treatment.

“The challenging thing to understand is where on a continuum, from group home, to remote location, to locked up, does this child need to be,” she said.

Decriminalizing kids

Yet, even more basic than those concerns is the fact that, until very recently, trafficked kids were still being arrested.

The first step toward decriminalization of sex trafficked children was SB 855, signed in June 2014, which required the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) to be officially recognized as child abuse. It also allocated $14 million in funding for CSEC training for county and foster care workers and implementation of support programs. However, despite the passage of this earlier law, youth sex trafficking victims were still viewed by many police primarily as lawbreakers.

Next came Senate Bill 1322, which bans law enforcement from arresting minors involved in the sex trade, except when their safety may be at risk. This bill was an enormous and essential step in treating sex trafficked kids as the victims they are and directing them toward social services, rather than cells, child advocates say.

Sponsored by Democratic Sen. Holly Mitchell and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2016, SB 1322 became active on Jan. 1, 2017, formalizing a statewide commitment to recognize these young people as crime victims with unique vulnerabilities — not as criminals.

But passing a law is one thing, changing a culture’s perception is another. On Dec. 31, 2016, the day before the law was to kick into gear, Republican state Assemblyman Travis Allen published an op-ed in the Washington Examiner stating falsely that California had just “legalized child prostitution.”

Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California

Cultural change is a major part of implementation, said Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California, and chair of the California CSEC Action Team Committee.

The 2014 bill, SB 855, marked the beginning of getting people to look at the entire problem differently, Heimov said. It also helped by allocating $14 million in funding to provide state-mandated local CSEC training for foster care workers plus implementation of support programs for the victimized youth.

But while SB 855 was a step in the right direction, it still did not clearly identify CSEC kids as victims of abuse, Heimov said. “Even within the child welfare community these victims weren’t victims — they were criminals — young people who were making conscious choices to sell themselves for sex.”

The glacial pace of cultural change

Now, even with the newer law, SB 1322, in place, for certain segments of the culture, such as law enforcement, the shift in perspective has been complicated.

“Los Angeles is doing a better job of getting law enforcement to the table, but statewide it has been very difficult,” Heimov explained. “The challenge is, we have some [officers] saying, ‘Well, now that there’s no crime, there’s nothing we can do’ and that is a part of the attitude and culture change.”

Police have two main functions in serving their communities, she said. One is to prevent, stop or react to crime, the other is the peace officer or safety role.

So, “when they see a member of the community in distress, they’re supposed to do something about it,” Heimov said. “If a cop sees a 4-year-old alone on the street corner they don’t just walk away because the child isn’t committing a crime. They’re supposed to investigate why the child is alone and bring them to safety.”

Similarly, if a police officer sees a person on the street in the early hours of the morning and she appears to be a trafficked minor, the police officer’s proper role is to bring her to safety.

“But there’s a lot of law enforcement that is not there yet because they haven’t completely made that emotional shift to seeing the child who looks like a prostitute as a victim,” Heimov said.

Maheen Kaleem

Maheen Kaleem, attorney at Rights4Girls, explained why this cultural shift in the system is an essential part of the two-step process of seeing and then addressing the problem.

“[Before this legislation] the child welfare system wasn’t recognizing these kids as being trafficked because of the fact that, when kids went missing from placement, there weren’t protocols in place to look for them or to flag that they needed to be sought out,” she said.

In other words, when a kid disappeared, often running away from their foster care group home and into the clutches of a trafficker, many times no one bothered to look for them, unlike what would occur if a loved and cared-for child vanished from their family.

Identifying Commercially Sexually Exploited Children

As Heimov said, SB 855 and 1322 now provide counties with funds for CSEC prevention and intervention, and a list of services that are specifically designed with the victimized children in mind. However, the first challenge across the state, say advocates, is still identifying these children.

Johanna Gendelman

In San Francisco, calls to the San Francisco Human Services Agency hotline come from multiple sources: teachers, shelters, group homes, police officers or anyone who identifies a child, said agency program analyst Johanna Gendelman.

“These calls aren’t coming in in the middle of the night. You’d think, ‘Some kid is being pulled out of a hotel at 3 in the morning,’ but our statistics don’t really show that,” she said. “Kids are mostly being identified through the day from their foster care provider, from their school, they are running away from health clinics. And the calls are mostly coming in during the day.” Although there have been two or three instances “where the police have pulled kids out of hotels,” she added.

Once trafficked youth are discovered, the next step is bringing them to a safe space, something that isn’t always easy to find.

“It’s a challenge in stabilizing the youth, and it's a challenge of child welfare in general,” Gendelman said. “We don’t have enough foster parents in San Francisco. We often have to send our children sometimes as far as Stockton [California].” The lack of appropriate foster parents means, it’s “difficult to place that child in a loving community,” she said. “We struggle with this in child welfare generally,”

With research pointing to a large portion of the CSEC population having been recruited from group homes, and foster care in general, child welfare advocates say there is a distinct line linking the issue of child sex trafficking, in part at least, to a problem that many have long been pushing to address.

Changing the before and after of child sexual trafficking

According to the California Child Welfare Council, a high percentage of youth who fall prey to sexual exploitation had prior involvement with the child welfare system, very often in group homes.

Nearly half (46.7 percent) of minors statewide who are suspected or confirmed as victims of domestic sex trafficking ran away from a foster care group home, according to the Center for Public Policy Studies.

Assembly Bill 403 took effect on Jan. 1, 2017, with the purpose of ending the group home model in order to better address the needs of the harder-to-place youth who enter the child dependency system. Older kids, highly traumatized youth and children, and kids who have been affected by sexual trafficking are typically put into group homes, and most often a series of group homes, where in too many cases their emotional needs are not met nor are they kept safe.

With these problems in mind, AB 403 mandates that all the group homes in the state’s 58 counties are required to relicense themselves as Short Term Residential Therapeutic Programs (STRTPs), centers that are designed to provide individualized treatment services for each youth for a short period of time. Then, ideally, the youth move on to a healthy, long-term placement with an appropriate family — either with relatives or a foster family.

However, two years after AB 403’s passage, this mandate still seems to be more wish than accomplishment.  

“I don’t think there’s been a lot of on-the-ground change,” Leslie Heimov said. “There’s promise of change and there’s hopefulness regarding change, but we aren’t there yet. The most difficult-to-place kids still go to group homes. Kids with the most challenges and the highest needs still go to group homes.”

While everyone agrees that the new system required by AB 403 will be an essential improvement for the state’s most at-risk foster kids, victims of child sex trafficking included, 10 months after the legislation and its Continuum of Care Reform (CCR) was to begin, there appears not to have been all that much progress.

“This isn’t going to be something where we flip the switch and see all the children out of group homes,” said Greg Rose, deputy director of child and family services for the California Department of Social Services.

According to Rose, the CCR implementation has three main goals:

  1. The provider community makes the shift from group homes to STRTPs.
  2. The Resource Family Approval process for foster care families starts, so the families can provide specialized services for victimized foster youth.
  3. Continuing efforts to increase the number of foster care families continue.

Goal 1: Making the shift to STRTPs

“The multisystemic treatment foster care homes, which we think hold great promise, they’re funded,” said Heimov, “but as far as we know, only a handful exist. There are very few spots for these high-end, single-child foster homes.”

In other words, while the state statute has been passed with the intention is to create nurturing environments for CSEC and other high-needs youth, with rare exceptions, the execution still needs to happen.

“The county has made funding arrangements and authorized them, but they don’t have the actual real people trained and ready to receive children,” Heimov said.

Until Goal 1 can be met, namely the opening of fully operational STRTPs, Rose explains that reliance on what is known as “congregate care” will be used, but only for a very limited time. And while kids are in these group homes, they are to receive “therapeutic interventions” — services such as counseling, health screenings, mental health services and other assistance aimed at improving the wellbeing of youth waiting for a more permanent placement, ideally with a family.

(To augment the reform that AB 403 requires, in 2016, California passed Assembly Bill 1997, which reduces the number of days kids can stay in individual counties’ problem-plagued emergency foster care shelters—used to house children facing emergency transitions between homes—from 30 to 10-day stays.)

There are deadlines for the transition from group homes to STRTPs. Former group home providers who serve foster youth must make the change no later than the last day of 2017. Providers that serve exclusively probation-involved youth, however, may request extensions through the end of 2018.

“The purpose of the STRTPs is to create a protocol whereby kids who are new to the system or who have experienced some sort of placement disruption are properly assessed to really identify their needs,” Rose said.

And, since these are short-term programs, he said, administrators will be planning for a youth’s discharge into placement with a family from day one.

According to Rose, the new short-term therapeutic facilities will be able to create specialized programs and treatments by placing children who suffer from similar experiences in the same treatment homes, so that they can get the services they really need rather than be subjected to one-size-fits all programming.

Advocates also hope that limiting the time that trafficked youth spend in facilities, away from a family or home environment, shrinks the window of opportunity during which they can be lured into trafficking, either by older kids or pimps who have previously made good use of a flawed foster care system.

Still, living in a group care environment for even up to a month is not in children’s best interest, Rose said. “We are asking the county to focus on finding families for those youth immediately, rather than sometime in a 30-day period,” he said.

But, as Heimov made clear, the kind of short-term treatment facilities Rose described are still more model than reality.

Which brings us to the second and third goals.

LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell speaks at an event in October 2015.

Goals 2 and 3: Resources and families

Another fundamental principle of CCR is that when children get their permanent homes, they should not have to change placements to get the services they require. Research shows that being placed in foster care is traumatic enough. For placements to be successful, behavioral and mental health services should be available in an in-home setting.

Rose stressed the importance of thoughtfulness when placing a child with a family, so that he or she can experience consistency in relationships as well as permanency and stability. In other words, there’s no point in placing an already traumatized kid with a family if the placement doesn’t stick.

His hope, as for others who are driving this change, is to create a paradigm shift from what used to be finding children to fit the available families, to now identifying families that fit the needs of the children.

But finding families isn’t easy.  And, at the moment, there aren’t enough families for all the kids who need them, which prominently includes the CSEC kids.

“I think it is a recruitment issue,” said Heimov. “Then the recruitment challenge is compounded by the county having a reputation for not providing the support that’s promised to caregivers — and people talk.”

As a consequence, she said, potential foster parents are often reluctant to move forward with an especially complicated child if they’re not confident they’re going to get support from the county.

According to Heimov, Los Angeles County and state officials have acknowledged this urgent dilemma and are working to make changes to improve the situation.

The recruitment teams are trying new strategies with the help of organizations like Foster More, a coalition of not-for-profit organizations and foundations.

But the concept of matching the family to the youth’s needs “is new,” said Heimov, “and people have to develop confidence in it before they’re going to jump into a very challenging situation with a child.”

Rose acknowledged that having enough foster families available continues to be a challenge.

Another monkey wrench thrown into the mix, according to Heimov, is the state’s recently instituted foster care family approval process, which potential foster families and relative caregivers must now go through. “Resource Family Approval,” or RFA, as it is called, requires more training for the families and relatives, which DCFS and most juvenile advocates agree is important.  But the new procedure has also lengthened the time necessary to get approved.  

Right now, said Heimov, out of 4,000 foster families and relative caregivers waiting to be approved, “as of two or three weeks ago,” only 331 had actually received approval, she said.

Scaling the model  

The county has two pilot sites where they’re doing aggressive family finding for foster care. These two cases are going well, but this is a very small portion of the entire county and it has yet to reach cross-county, Heimov said.

“LA has a long and sad history of instituting really excellent pilot programs, but when they try to roll them out countywide they aren’t fully implemented.” Thus, she said, the programs don’t work as well as they did in the pilot. “And everyone throws their hands up and wonders why. And the why is because they lose fidelity to the original model when they try to go to scale,” Heimov said.

In short, the county is using a variety of methods to address the foster family deficit, many of which show real promise according to several DCFS sources.  But finding new and innovative ways to successfully recruit more foster families, as with the changeover of the group homes, takes time.

The legal side

Matters are further complicated by the fact that, in addition to the need for better care and stability for these children, there are also often legal hurdles for CSEC victims to deal with, which mean further challenges for those who hope to help them heal and to thrive.

“When we get the girls, we’re not only getting a victim,” said Iglesias of Children and Family Services, “we’re getting someone who’s got involvement with the criminal system. They may be testifying against their pimp,” or they may have outstanding cases themselves. This means not only legal complexities, she said, but also the possibility of additional trauma to an already traumatized young person.

“CSEC is a sexy issue right now and people want to learn about it and address it, but I think we need to slow the roll and learn how to do this intentionally and carefully in a way that benefits and helps the girls,” Iglesias said.

Yet, despite all the challenges, Iglesias and Heimov also see progress.

“It is a hard population, we’re learning as we go,” Iglesias said. “I think we’ve come a long way though.” At least, she said “we truly mean it when we say there’s no such thing as a child prostitute.”

This story has been updated.

This story was a cooperative effort among the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange's Los Angeles bureau, the 2016 Journalism Reporting Fellowship for The Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College and WitnessLA.

I Was a Kid in Solitary Confinement

My young parents didn’t have the skill sets to properly raise me, which at a young age caused me to search for acceptance in other places. I began running away at the age of 13 and quickly got heavily involved in drug use.

Nearly two years later I was a victim of sex trafficking. My trafficker was arrested and later sent to prison for the remainder of his life and I was sent to jail, where I received no healing and was sent back home nine months later. I once again found myself on the streets, and for the second time became a victim of sex trafficking not even a year later. This time, I decided to stand up against my trafficker. I didn’t go to the police because I didn’t want to relive the traumatic process of the court system.

On Aug. 31, 2011 I was arrested and jailed for six serious felonies against the man who brutally raped and trafficked me. Not even a month after sitting in the Juvenile Detention Center at age 16, I was charged as an adult and placed in the adult jail. The day I was sent to adult jail would change my life forever. Because I was under 18, I had to be separated from all adult prisoners by sight and sound to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Based on my developmental age, I should have been placed in a dorm with juveniles where we were treated differently and received proper services. In reality, I was placed in a mental health dorm even though I didn’t have a mental health diagnosis because there was no space in the jail to place me anywhere else. I was on lockdown 23 hours a day and was deprived of regular programming including access to education, recreation and mental health services that I didn’t qualify for.

I was in a dorm with legally insane people. They yelled and screamed at night about things that made no sense to me. I heard inmates banging, kicking and slamming heads on doors and walls, people throwing their feces out the flap of their blue metal door and much, much more. I saw people pepper-sprayed, tased, hog-tied and strapped down to a black restraint chair because they were being “too loud” or banging on the doors for “too long.”

As a child you can imagine the effect this had on me. Stuck in a cell for 23 hours a day forced me to relive the many traumatic experiences I had experienced years prior to my incarceration. Some days I blamed myself for the trauma, abuse and neglect. I convinced myself I deserved to be separated from the world because I only caused harm. On other days, I felt ostracized. All I wanted was to feel like I was a part of the human race — not like some caged animal. I felt alone, like no one cared and sometimes even asked myself, why am I even living?

It was almost impossible for me to process the feelings of being alone in a cell for 23 hours a day with no positive human contact. After being in a mental health dorm for some time, I saw quite a few people try to commit suicide so that question of why am I living turned into an action and I attempted suicide on a few different occasions. I remember one incident of me rolling off of the top bunk several times, trying to land on my head, hoping I would just die.

After attempting suicide didn’t work, I mentally tried to escape from confinement; I eventually started using a variety of mechanisms to dissociate from my experience. I felt like I was going mad. I started to play games with the walls in my room. I would count the bricks over and over again. I would play Tetris with the bricks, rearranging them in my mind. I even convinced myself that every time I went to sleep and woke up, a brick from the wall would be missing and the cell got smaller and smaller.

I was really lonely. I started arguments with myself and pretended like I was two different people arguing. I played out scenes from movies that I saw in the past. I remember one instance where I banged my head on the wall several times until I started bleeding, just to use the blood to enact a scene from a movie. The games of dissociation only lasted so long and eventually I began struggling to cope with confinement and I faced a losing battle with myself.

Soon, I fell into a deep, deep depression and had my first anxiety attack followed by uncontrollable rage. To cope with the depression, anxiety and rage I began daydreaming and sleeping. If I wasn’t sleeping, I was in bed trying to sleep. Get up, eat and back to sleep. This cycle of suicide attempts, dissociation, mind games, depression, anxiety, rage and sleeping my life away continued until I turned 18 and was moved in an adult dorm.

I can’t speak for all young people that have spent time or are currently spending time in confinement in an adult jail. I can only speak from my personal experiences. Duval County jail’s mission is “To operate facilities for secure, humane, corrective, and productive detention of those awaiting trial as well as those already sentenced.” But where was the productiveness in my incarceration? Where was the correction? Where is accountability for the jails to make sure arrested youth have the right space and services to avoid deeper damage?

Prior to ever ending up in the justice system, I had already experienced severe trauma. Being placed in confinement made the trauma experiences more exacerbated. The justice system is supposed to rehabilitate individuals but you can only do this if you understand what the people entering the system need.

Because of the lack of adequate mental health services and no one ever taking the time to ask me what happened to me, suffering was worse than it may otherwise have been. I was forced to relive the trauma over and over again, and eventually I detached myself from the trauma, further delaying my healing.

It wasn’t until four years later that I began receiving services. Not because the jail allowed me to, not because anyone recommended that I receive help, but because I was tired of living in misery, pain and suffering. I was tired of being bound to my past mistakes. I think of all the other children like me who are still stuck in solitary confinement and wonder if they will make it out as lucky as I did. I wonder if they get out, will they just go back because of all the damage that has been done to them.

Statistics suggest a higher recidivism rate for juveniles in the adult system, and especially for the juveniles stuck in solitary confinement. Our children deserve better. It is by luck that I’m able to write this. We need to eliminate luck from the equation. I am no longer bound, but other children are and will continue to be as long as we keep looking the other way.

Alyssa Beck is a survivor advocate who helps develop laws and practices that will support survivors of sex trafficking and youth involved in the justice justice system. Connected to the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, she is also a member of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Justice Youth Advisory Council.

This post originally appeared on JDAIconnect.org.

This column has been updated.

How LA County Began to Face Its Big Problem With Youth Being Sex-Trafficked

LOS ANGELES — Michelle Guymon is a hero in the world of child sex trafficking prevention.

Seven years ago, she had no idea Los Angeles County had a child sex trafficking problem

Now Guymon is director of the Child Trafficking Unit for the Los Angeles County Probation Department and is part of the group that aims to make LA’s efforts to combat child sex trafficking a model for the nation.

Michelle Guymon

Her connection to child trafficking began in November 2010. She was the director of Camp Scudder, one of the two girls’ camps in the probation system.

Guymon also served on the Interagency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect (ICAN) committee, which — as the name suggests — looked at various types of child abuse within the county. At a committee meeting, an FBI agent gave a presentation on human trafficking worldwide, and domestic sex trafficking of minors. She was startled by the domestic part of the presentation.

Today, child sexual exploitation is a significant problem nationally. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in six of the 18,500 children reported as having run away from home in 2016 were “likely sex trafficking victims.” The organization defines sex trafficking victims as young people under 17 years old — boys and girls — who are “exploited through commercial sex.” Of these, “86 percent were in the care of social services when they went missing,” NCMEC says.

But back in 2010, Guymon didn’t realize the scope of the problem. “At this point in my life, the only thing I knew about human trafficking was that it happened in other countries to other kids,” she said. “It had nothing to do with me.”

She had no idea that the year before an FBI report had named Los Angeles one of the 13 most intense child sex trafficking hubs in the U.S.

When ICAN wanted to form a subcommittee on the domestic sex trafficking of minors two weeks later, Guymon still wasn’t all that interested.

Why?

“I didn’t see this happening in LA.”

Then her friend Judge Donna Groman of Juvenile Delinquency Court called Guymon and said she needed to be a part of this subcommittee. “How do you tell a judge no?” Guymon said.

A transformative epiphany

The first subcommittee meeting was Nov. 16, 2010. “I remember the date so vividly,” Guymon said, “because it was a day that had a profound impact on my life. It was here that I learned that this exploitation wasn’t something happening [only] in a faraway country. In fact, it was happening right here, in our community, to the very young women I was charged to protect.”

She realized that the young kids she’d viewed as teenage prostitutes throughout her probation career were no different than the victims from other countries the FBI agent was talking about.

“The girls at my camp that are in for prostitution are victims of sex trafficking?” Guymon thought. The concept made her head spin.

“I questioned why these young girls were doing that, not really understanding that this was something being done to them, not something they were choosing to do. I had no idea that they were under the control of an exploiter. [That] they were not out there by choice,” she said.

After this realization, Guymon talked to the now-retired chief of the probation department, Jerry Powers. “We’ve got a system full of these kids,” Guymon told him. “If they’re victims, then they shouldn’t be in detention. They shouldn’t be locked up.”

Guymon was relieved when Powers supported the creation of a new approach. When David Mitchell became bureau chief of probation, he also gave his full support.

Around this same time, Commissioner Catherine Pratt of the Juvenile Delinquency Court was making the same discovery in her courtroom, as she noticed an increase in prostitution cases. Pratt realized the minors being charged were victims of child sex trafficking.

In LA County Probation, the average age for trafficked kids is 15½, but the exploitation often starts earlier, Guymon said. “We don’t see 12-year-olds in the probation system,” she said, “but in one of my early cases, a girl in a group home said her exploitation started at the age of 11 when her adopted mother sold her to support her drug habit.”

In 2011, Pratt and LA Juvenile Delinquency Court and Guymon with the LA Probation Department both applied for three-year federal grants.

Pratt proposed to open a dedicated courtroom that would focus on providing alternatives to detention and assistance for commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC). Guymon and her team applied to create a human trafficking unit inside probation, the first in the county. She hoped the grant would help her unit secure advocacy services for victims. The idea was for the advocates to help keep kids out of detention altogether, or to help shorten their detention time and get them into services and support.

Their timing was good. A year before, in 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice had published the National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction, outlining ways to address the growing problem of child exploitation, including providing grants to state, local and tribal government agencies, along with nonprofit partners.

Both got their grants. Pratt developed and supervised the STAR (Succeeding Through Treatment and Resilience) Court, and Guymon developed the human trafficking unit.

All hands on deck

Today Guymon’s team includes nine probation staff members, plus a supervisor, with Guymon as the head. But Guymon began her team with just three people: herself and two other probation officers.

At first, she and her two staffers were stretched thin. Getting a huge county bureaucracy — like that of Los Angeles County — to shift gears enough to move on a problem, even a problem as urgent as child sex trafficking, isn’t easy. After a presentation by Guymon and company at a meeting of the LA County Board of Supervisors, the board became supportive. Yet the problem couldn’t be addressed by just one agency, a few nonprofit advocacy groups and a small alternative court.

On Jan. 10, 2012, the Board of Supervisors passed a motion directing many of the county’s main agencies — probation, the District Attorney’s office, juvenile courts, Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), Mental Health (DMH), Health Services (DHS) and the Interagency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect (ICAN) — to develop a strategy for uniting the various relevant groups to address the complicated problem. The board also requested a feasibility study for making a more permanent version of Guymon’s unit within probation specifically devoted to helping CSEC victims.

Nearly four years later, on Nov. 16, 2015, the board passed another motion, noting that LA needed “a single, countywide body to manage coordinate, and monitor the county’s many CSEC initiatives.” No one agency could handle such a task, the board agreed. The result was the LA County CSEC Integrated Leadership Team, now known by the slightly awkward acronym of CSEC ILT. The Team was to be jointly led by probation, DCFS and the LA County Sheriff’s Department.

[Related: Los Angeles Trying New Tactics to Help Children, Many in Foster Care, Who Are Sexually Trafficked]

The ball was moved forward still farther when in September 2015 the U.S. Department of Justice provided a $1.5 million grant to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the sheriff’s department to jointly create an LA Regional Human Trafficking Task Force to work in partnership with other law enforcement agencies, and with CSEC ILT. The task force also partnered with the Los Angeles Police Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and 46 independent police departments in LA, uniting law enforcement to combat this issue collaboratively.

STAR Court

One of the most important puzzle pieces when designing the multiagency effort was the court system. In that arena, LA County was one step ahead.

In 2011, while Guymon was launching her unit, Pratt had launched the STAR Court, a dedicated courtroom in Compton where Pratt now hears only CSEC cases two days each week. As an adjunct to the courtroom process, a special multidisciplinary team (MDT) meets on Wednesdays. The team — a public defender, a district attorney, an education advocate, a human trafficking advocate, a DCFS agent, a probation officer and Pratt — fosters relationships with the kids who come through the court. While most judges only see such juveniles twice per year in their courtroom, Pratt checks in with them every three to five weeks, when each kid has a scheduled court appearance to review their case and personal progress.

In between, the multidisciplinary team keeps in touch.

Probation is the leader of the team and Guymon is proud of its function. “The level of [individual] engagement that we’ve created [with kids] is what makes a huge difference in the STAR court,” she said. “We have a dedicated probation officer who is the court liaison to Judge Pratt for all matters that go through her calendar on both of those days.”

Guymon admitted that the unit doesn’t have the personnel to supervise every case. But they try to find solutions in whatever way they can, she said. If, for example, they identify a young person who they believe is at risk of CSEC, but who is close to turning 18, when they will be out of reach of the juvenile system, they introduce the youth to a probation officer with resources in the community, so that officer can help the youth once he or she is technically an adult. In other cases where the young person is already positively connected to a probation officer in their community, that relationship is folded into the protocol.

“One of the things that we know about this population is, it’s very relational,” Guymon said. “We don’t want to move them to another probation officer who they don’t know. We triage it, so we take most of the kids that are 16½ and younger; that way we have some length of time to work with them.”

In the beginning, the MDT was a group of five. Now about 17 people participate in those Wednesday meetings. And since public health issues also impact CSEC victims, in the near future a public health nurse will join the team, navigating health services such as pregnancy, parenting, personal safety, etc.

Human Trafficking Task Force

Captain Chris E Marks

Law enforcement was also a crucial piece of LA County’s newly created system. The key to getting cops to invest in the program was training, said LA County Sheriff’s Captain Chris Marks, who is now the head of the LA Regional Human Trafficking Task Force.

“When we rolled out the first responder protocol last year to all the stations, the deputies were very receptive to this,” he said. “It’s not that law enforcement was opposed to it. They didn’t understand it. With the information and knowledge that came through [our] training, they realized what they were missing.”

The first step, according to retired captain Merrill Ladenheim, who helped create the task force, was to make a concerted effort to cluster representatives and agents from different law enforcement agencies and community-based organizations under one roof.

The task force and leadership team work better together, he said. “We don’t incarcerate CSEC victims, because victims don’t belong in jail. Our goal is to steer them out of probation, and into a victim-centered, trauma approach. Law enforcement [alone] isn’t the best to do that.”

One of the community organizations that partners the most actively with the law enforcement task force is CAST, Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.

From the moment they receive a referral or crisis call, CAST and the task force wrap services around the child through an emergency first responder protocol, according to Becca Channell, CAST’s task force coordinator.

Captain Merrill Ladenheim

“We meet with the [victim to ensure] they get safe housing, clothing and any basic needs in that time of crisis,” Channell said. After that first step, CAST coordinates the longer-term services the young person needs, such as as health care, more permanent housing, employment training, education and more.

“They receive legal services from the very beginning,” she said. “When they were being exploited, survivors had to rely on their trafficker for income, housing and food. These services are essential to break that tie between the survivor and trafficker so they can move forward and build a life of their own.”

The coordinated effort with law enforcement is also critical, according to Channell. “It [gives] us an avenue to reach the victims.”

In addition, law enforcement provides protection, which in CSEC work is of crucial importance.

Working with the LA County Sheriff’s Department “helps us keep the victim and staff safe every step of the way.”

Once a youth turns 18, however, matters become more complicated legally, and the task force tends to step away. CAST tries to bridge the gap for young people who leave the juvenile system by providing resources and services such as food, shelter, tattoo removal and job training, as well as help with expunging their records.

CAST also offers training for law enforcement staff.

Becca Channell

In the beginning, many in the sheriff’s department were operating under an old view of human trafficking, and had not yet understood that it was essential not to treat victims as criminals, Channell said. “We do this training with all the new people who come in from the [sheriff’s] academy to continue to shift those mindsets. It’s an ongoing process.”

In addition, she said, CAST does training with patrol officers who don’t work with human trafficking cases per se, “but are very likely to come across a human trafficking victim.”

This happens with regularity, according to Marks. “A couple weeks ago,” he said, “the San Gabriel Police Department was doing an operation that led them to a motel unrelated to sex trafficking. They came across three victims and three pimps.”

The San Gabriel cops knew they had some kind of sex trafficking situation, he said, “because of the awareness that's catching on. But they still needed some help. So they called our Task Force.” He paused. “It demonstrates how law enforcement is being educated and retrained on this. It’s evolving for the better.” (For more information, see the First Responder Protocol.)

Solving recruitment problem

One of the greatest difficulties both the task force and the leadership team face is keeping kids from being recruited in the first place, Ladenheim and Guymon said. This is particularly problematic when dealing with youth in the probation system or in the group homes of LA’s child welfare system, where other young people who are being sexually exploited themselves will try to recruit peers by glamorizing the life. They tell other kids about all the “good” things they could have, things they might not normally get, if they join.

In order to combat recruitment, CSEC ILT conducts educational workshops in the county’s three juvenile halls. It’s a prevention curriculum, according to Guymon. The idea is to ensure that kids understand what the commercial sexual exploitation of kids really means.

“We teach kids the tactics exploiters and peer recruiters will use to get them into the life. [At the workshops] we get a lot of disclosures, where kids are saying, ‘This is what my boyfriend does to me.’ They are starting to question what their peers have told them about the life,” Guymon said.

Those young kids who are recruiting their peers are under an enormous amount of pressure by their trafficker, according to Guymon. “Many of our adult survivors say they regret recruiting other kids. They did it out of fear, to try and keep themselves safe,” she said.

Preventing victims from returning to their traffickers once they’ve been extricated is another difficulty.

“On average, the victims run back to their traffickers because of the trauma bonds or Stockholm Syndrome that has developed,” Ladenheim said.

Channell agreed. These children face various mental health issues, she said, such as attachment to the trafficker because they lack a support system, and very often do not have a home or family where they are safe. “Finding these children a safe environment where they can grow and thrive is difficult, especially when they might still have that connection or romantic feelings for their trafficker.”

They’re vulnerable because of all these tragic things that have happened, and the trauma in their lives that puts them in a place where traffickers, pimps can sniff them out,” Captain Marks said. “[Pimps] are experts at manipulating these girls. They find them and put them in these horrible positions.”

With this issue in mind, about two years ago, the leadership team added additional training for task force members on the intersection of trauma and sexual exploitation. It’s important to include such training, Guymon said. Otherwise staff and officers often don’t understand why kids run away from placement and back to an exploiter.

For a very long time, she said, law enforcement viewed trafficked children with the lens of criminality. “We saw them as teenage prostitutes, we didn’t see them as kids who were being victimized and exploited.” And the exploitation often starts at home, or close to home.

Adult survivors, according to Guymon, often say that their personal history of child sexual abuse was more devastating to them, long term, than their exploitation by strangers. “That childhood abuse and trauma is something they still struggle with today. We help with unpacking the layers of trauma these kids have had.”

Vidhya Ananthakrishnan, a project director at the Vera Institute of Justice, explained why underlying trauma is a driving force. “Sexual abuse, family violence, it forces kids to make this choice [to run away]. They end up on the streets homeless, so they are recruited into being trafficked. It’s about survival, and trying to make the best out of a terrible situation.”

When Channell was an emergency response manager, she learned from victims how difficult it is to get out of being trafficked: “At least they know they’ll eat and know where they’ll sleep.”

Problem of vanishing testimony

The conundrum of solving the child trafficking problem is exacerbated by the fact that it is so difficult to convict the traffickers.

According to Guymon, the task force struggles to get trafficking cases to court primarily because trafficked kids are terrified and not willing to testify. Without the primary evidence of victim testimony, the case against the trafficker usually vanishes.

If a child is willing to testify, then CSEC ILT works on the case with the DA’s office. They use a protocol developed specifically for victims who are witnesses in these cases to ensure the child receives protection and services throughout the process.

“What we have done in the past is to wrap as many services around them as possible. If there are any threats, intimidation or harm, we work with the DA’s office to get the kids relocated,” Guymon said.

The risk is very real, she said. When a child is testifying against someone who has sexually abused them, they run the risk of harm from their trafficker, and others, especially when the trafficking is gang-related. The trafficker is the one being prosecuted and going to prison, but the gang is still in the community.

Guymon said they are looking for better solutions, such as having the victims testify via closed-circuit television, so that they don’t have to face a trafficker while testifying.

California Senate Bill 176, approved in 2015, already allows for alternative court procedures to protect the rights of a child witness who are under 13. But youth over 13 were left out of the equation.

A subsequent bill, California Assembly Bill 1276, approved on Sept. 26, 2016, went one step further. This bill allows children 15 and younger to testify via closed-circuit TVs outside the courtroom. Guymon wishes the bill included all teenagers, although she believes it’s a good starting point. “It should have been everyone under 18 years old,” she said.

So, for now, she said, the force wraps the young people in services in whatever way is possible. “We want kids to know that if you are testifying, you’re not just a case. We will put the services, support and protections all the way through.”

Critical next steps

So, what should be done next to better solve the tragic problem of child trafficking?

For Guymon, more training is among the main steps most needed.

To date, CSEC ILT has trained about 12,000 professionals in Los Angeles county in the First Responder Protocol for CSEC youth — a sort of CSEC 101 that builds awareness of how the commercial sexual exploitation of children works, the vulnerability of the kids involved and what exactly puts children at risk. Those trained include probation officer, cops, county social workers, foster care providers, health care providers and more.

Guymon argues that everybody and anybody should be trained to increase public awareness. “You [the average citizen] might see something, so you need to know what to do,” she said. Her voice is professional, but also filled with an urgency often present when she talks about the kids who have become her mission.

“That’s the only way you stop things. You have all eyes on deck.”

Marks agrees. He said it is essential for the public to “truly understand the magnitude of the problem.”

To illustrate he described one of the task force’s recent sting operations in which they posted fake ads, then an investigator talked to potential customers. One ad produced 1,200 text messages exchanged with would-be buyers, he said.

“That to me portrays the problem — and the demand that exists out there. Demand is immeasurable, you can’t quantify it. You post an ad and within seconds, you’re getting a response.”

So, now the task force is putting an emphasis on “the demand side” of sex trafficking, Marks said. “This is what we’re really looking at and coming up with ways [to combat it]. Combating demand involves enforcement, of course, but also, he said, it means “ the portrayal” of what the public considers “a john” to be. “He’s exploiting a woman, [or] a child for money.”

The other part of the “awareness campaign,” he said, is getting the message out “to these kids that are already in this life.” He wants them to know that law enforcement now understands that they’ve been victimized.

“Most of the youth are girls, but boys too, [and] they don’t t

rust the system.” The challenge, Marks said, is to break through that lack of trust that makes CSEC children so vulnerable to pimps and traffickers. He wants trafficked kids to know they’re not going to be treated like criminals, as was nearly always the case in the recent past.

“We’re not looking at you like you’ve done something wrong. ... You have a safe place to come to. We want to help you.”

This story was sponsored by the 2016 Journalism Reporting Fellowship for The Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College and is the product of a collaboration between the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange and WitnessLA.

Report: Girls Face ‘Sex-Abuse-To-Prison Pipeline’

The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story
Click to read the full report “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story”

The numbers are huge: An Oregon study found that 93 percent of girls in the state’s juvenile justice system had been sexually or physically abused at some time. South Carolina research found that 81 percent of girls in its system had experienced sexual abuse.

Some are victims of sex trafficking. Some who have been abused run away from home and are truant. Some have been abused in the foster care system.

“It’s far more than the vast majority of people are aware of,” said Peter Edelman, faculty director of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality.

The center, along with the Ms. Foundation and the Human Rights Project for Girls, released a new report Thursday: “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story.”

It pulls together the story of traumatized girls — and a story of punishment instead of assistance.

“Girls, and disproportionately black and brown girls, are, incredibly, being locked up when they’ve run away from an abusive parent or when they have been trafficked for sex as children,” said co-author Malika Saada Saar, executive director of the Human Rights Project for Girls.

[Related: When We Fail To Ask Why: Sexually Abused Girls Funneled into Juvenile Justice System]

“But their stories of unjust arrest and incarceration have been marginalized,” she said.

Once girls are arrested, they enter a system that is often poorly equipped to identify their needs and “treat the violence and trauma that lie at the root of victimized girls’ arrests,” said the report written by Saada Saar, Rebecca Epstein, Lindsay Rosenthal and Yasmin Vafa.

“Girls who have been trafficked get arrested rather than the pimps … They’re treated as criminals rather than victims,” Edelman said.

When girls run away or are truant, they are treated as status offenders.

hub_arrow_2-01“What happens very often is that she runs away [again] and violates her probation as a status offender … Now she’s transformed into a juvenile delinquent — and that needs to be changed,” Edelman said.

The punitive environment of juvenile detention can retrigger trauma, the report says.

“There needs to be significant mental health services in the juvenile corrections system but there just isn’t,” Edelman said.

The sex-abuse-to-prison pipeline disproportionately affects girls of color, the report said.

African-American girls make up 14 percent of the general population, but 33 percent of the juvenile justice population, it said.

Efforts to reform the juvenile justice system are not adequately taking note of girls’ experience and the distinct pipeline that funnels them into the system, the report says.

“When we say ‘black lives matter,’ that means girls too,” Saada Saar said. The debate over criminalizing boys of color must also address the criminalization of girls.

The report calls for a number of actions:

  • Increase mental health and trauma services for girls; the report details how that can be done through Medicaid.
  • Improve identification of victims of abuse.
  • End arrests of girls under 18 on prostitution charges.
  • Close the loophole in the law, the Valid Court Order Loophole, that allows girls to be locked up for status offenses, such as truancy or running away.
  • Provide law enforcement training on gender bias.
  • Create supportive and safe group homes for girls.

Victim of Sex Trafficking in U.S. Tells Her Story

Laura Abasi* became a victim of sex trafficking when she was 18 years old.
Laura Abasi* became a victim of sex trafficking when she was 18 years old.

It’s part of the game. Because you got to establish a certain thing. You got to establish some fear in that female in order to get that respect. You have to really show that girl — if you told that girl you was gonna kill her, when it come time to [fighting], you have to almost kill her, to beg her to say, “Daddy, no please don’t kill me.” You have to be that serious.

— Bishop Don "Magic" Juan, interview with VladTV.com, April 2013.


(*Editor’s note: “Laura Abasi,” “DJ,” and “Quinn” are not the characters’ real names. All other names in the story are real.)

In early spring of 2004, Laura Abasi stepped out the passenger side of a white Mercedes coupe and onto a red carpet. Laura, 21, didn’t have much time to get ready for the event, an album premiere party at an entertainment studio on Manhattan’s west side.

new york logo 01It didn’t matter. DJ had walked into her room about 30 minutes before they had to leave and thrust a shopping bag at her. She slipped on its contents — a knee-length, multi-colored, long-sleeved wrap dress and strappy black stiletto heels. Both items fit perfectly. DJ knew her size — her body — better than she did.

At the party, DJ strode into a thicket of artists and music industry execs flitting around the crowded studio. DJ was Laura’s pimp, and he had purchased her outfit for the occasion. He knew some of the famous faces at the party through his boss, a Billboard chart-topping rapper. DJ introduced Laura to his boss and his wife, and maybe two other men in suits. Of course, DJ referred to Laura as “Amber,” her professional alias. She hadn’t heard “Laura,” her given name, since she was a teenager.

DJ’s boss knew he was a pimp. He had even cast DJ as a pimp in a recent music video, but MTV cut the scene when producers realized DJ wasn’t acting. If anyone else at the party understood or even wondered about DJ and Laura’s relationship, they didn’t indicate it.

“This is Amber,” DJ said.

Laura had turned her first trick on February 1, 2000, for a pimp named Quinn. The Kenyan-born, 5-foot-11 high school dropout thought she would become a model. At 18, she was old for a “green” prostitute — pimps usually “break” girls before they reach 14. And, with her doctor father and middle-class upbringing, Laura had seen more Volvos and college pamphlets than most trafficking victims ever would. Laura’s family emigrated to the U.S. when she was a baby and eventually settled down in a suburban part of Queens.

Laura was a high-worth prospect, so Quinn didn’t rush the “seasoning” process. Laura was 15 when Quinn, who was in his 20s, stopped in the market where she worked after school. He posed as a hopeful suitor, and then a trustworthy boyfriend, until Laura believed her captor was her soul mate. Once Laura moved into Quinn’s apartment — just a few subway stops away from her parents’ house — the road from impressionable teenager to brainwashed chattel proved to be short. Laura went into hibernation and out popped Amber, a hardscrabble bitch who could tell an eager john by his gait.

sex_trafficking_seriesBut Amber really took over when DJ entered the picture. They met in late 2000, when DJ’s Escalade rolled up next to her on Broadway and 55th street.

“Bitch, you mines now,” DJ had said.

When Laura didn’t hop in the car, DJ opened the back door to offer proof of ownership. Laura saw everything she owned strewn across the back seat, indicating that Quinn had traded her. She understood that DJ was now her pimp, so she acquiesced and moved into his New Jersey McMansion that night.

Since then, Laura had dangled on DJ’s arm at a number of industry parties. She knew she wasn’t a guest, so she never acted like one. As usual, she didn’t take hors d’oeuvres from trays or even go to the bathroom. Instead, she stood in a corner while DJ sidled up to celebrities.

Someone else may have felt awkward standing alone at a party, but Laura didn’t. Feeling awkward would have required Laura to think critically about how other people saw her. Laura hadn’t thought for or about herself in years.

Like thousands of other American girls, Laura gave up control of her mind when she fell into pimp-controlled street prostitution, a rampant form of human sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is a type of modern day slavery and, according to New York State Law, occurs when people profit from the control and exploitation of others through sex. The idea that street prostitutes exercise free will is a lie, according to advocates and former victims. Pimps target vulnerable girls — often runaways, foster children, undocumented immigrants, and victims of physical and sexual abuse.

Laura’s story, as bracing and violent as it gets, is not uncommon in New York, the country’s fourth-largest hub for human trafficking. Until 2007, sexually exploited children like Laura were criminals under state law. But in the past seven years, through anti-trafficking legislation and judicial reform, activists and lawmakers have worked to change the laws so that sexually exploited youth are treated as victims, not criminals.

Laura didn’t wonder why the outside world — white-collared men, rappers, neighbors, and town car drivers — either overlooked what DJ did or, often, helped him do it. She didn’t find it upsetting, or even odd, that people saw pimps like DJ as hard-knocks heroes — and women like Laura as property. Survival instinct and delusion subdued any impulse to question DJ’s perverted version of the truth.

For instance, DJ often said, “I love you so much, you’re gonna make me kill you.”

Wow, he loves me that much, Laura would only think in reply.

Although Laura stood in silence, the party itself was loud. Bass-heavy tracks competed with the din of conversations that surrounded her. She watched hip-hop artists toss back champagne and throw up crossed, sideways peace signs for photos. She might have ordered champagne herself, but DJ prohibited alcohol — he thought drunkenness was unladylike.

DJ did, however, endorse drug use, and dispensed generous helpings of whatever his girls needed to meet their nightly quotas. Some girls liked the hallucinogenic haze of an ecstasy-and-weed cocktail. Others preferred to turn tricks on a cocksure cocaine high. And then some girls liked the hard stuff. But drinking enabled sloppy behavior that threatened DJ’s control, and he didn’t tolerate it.

After a few hours of partying, DJ collected Laura to leave. They stopped at a diner in Weehawken, N.J. on the way home for a late night snack. DJ talked, cracked jokes and shared observations.

Laura ordered her favorite treat, pigs in a blanket, and responded when summoned. She knew to limit her contributions to conversations.

“Yes, Daddy,” and, when appropriate, “No, Daddy.” And after five years under pimp-rule, she knew to use the word “no” sparingly.

[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"]

After five years under pimp-rule, she knew to use the word “no” sparingly.

[/module]

In late spring 2004, about two months after the rap album party, DJ called Laura and told her to cut the night short. Laura usually got home from work around 7 a.m. and flopped on her bed to watch reruns of the family sitcom "Home Improvement." DJ occasionally joined her. But that night, Laura walked through the door around 1 a.m. and found DJ sitting on the living room couch with a piece of loose-leaf paper in his hand. It was Laura’s to-do-list, which included a reminder to send her mother $2,000.

DJ just stared at Laura when she refused to give him a straight answer about the $2,000 on the list. He looked stunned. Until that night, he trusted her more than anyone — more than his mother Lil’ Ma; even more than his now dead attorney, Russell Paisley, who kept DJ, and a lot of New York pimps, out of jail and in the game year after year.

DJ’s steady timbre escalated into a gravelly bark and Laura, wise to his temper, took off. She dashed up the stairs and into her bedroom. Although her room provided little refuge, Laura didn’t consider going anywhere else. By that point, she had been arrested on prostitution-related charges over 20 times. To the justice system, she wasn’t a girl in need — she was just a criminal. And to the outside world, she was a whore going nowhere.

Laura waited at the far corner of her room, bracing for DJ’s attack. Like all pimps, DJ had strict rules. The handful of girls who rotated through DJ’s house couldn’t leave without permission or keep the money they earned from prostitution. Laura, in particular, could make over $10,000 a week — sometimes, she made that much in one day. Every penny was supposed to go to DJ. He bought everything Laura owned or used, from floor-length furs she wore while turning tricks to Tylenol and tampons.

But Laura had secretly held on to some of her earnings. She had hidden rolled-up bills in condoms, and stashed the condoms in Arm & Hammer baking soda boxes scattered around the house.

While Quinn avoided Laura’s face when he beat her, DJ didn’t care. DJ was a “Gorilla Pimp,” a distinction reserved for pimps who dole out near-fatal beatings on autopilot. DJ even preferred to have sex with Laura right after he beat her, before the slippery blood in her weave dried into clumps. She called it “grudge-fucking,” but it was textbook rape.

DJ kicked open Laura's door and stood in the doorway. His rabid gaze said he was angrier than usual. He’d ditched Laura’s to-do list and grabbed tools from his arsenal: his “nookie,” a whip made from twisted clothes hangers, and a metal bat.

He rushed at Laura, hurling his fists into her head. He swatted at her face until her eye sockets and lips swelled into bloody pillows of flesh. Then he proceeded to ransack her room for the money. Laura knew that she didn’t leave her to-do list lying around. Another girl in the house had found it while rooting around her room, and then gamely placed it in DJ’s hands.

He cut open her pillows and mattress, and pulled apart her dresser. Oh God, don’t tip over the baking soda, Laura thought. But, when he came up empty-handed, DJ turned on Laura again.

DJ beat her until after the sun came up, making sure to immobilize her so she couldn’t grab the hidden money and flee. Laura fought back until her kneecaps gave out, and screamed until blows to her face rendered her mute. But she didn’t cry. She never cried during beatings, even when DJ left her with “tiger stripes,” lines of open wounds in her back.

Grueling sensations hit every nerve ending in her body. She couldn’t distinguish stinging lacerations from throbbing joints. She assumed this was the feeling of dying. As hours passed, she grew numb to the deafening pain.

Sometime that morning an older white man entered Laura’s room, where her swollen body languished on the bed. Swaths of blood had turned the white wall beside her into a grisly canvas. Laura recognized the man as a doctor who sometimes visited the house after beatings. DJ only endorsed hospital visits when the doctor believed girls would die from their injuries.

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DJ only endorsed hospital visits when the doctor believed girls would die from their injuries.

[/module]

DJ stood at the door while the doctor poked at Laura’s eyes and palpated her bruised neck. Although she wouldn’t walk for two months, and a broken rib made it hard to take even shallow breaths, the doctor decided she wasn’t about to die. So the two men left the room.

Laura had seen DJ morph into a monster many times since receiving her first beating at 18. Usually, she just vied harder for his love. But that night changed things. For the first time, DJ questioned her loyalty — and so did Laura.

Six months later, in October 2004, Laura tore away from the curb of the Plaza Hotel in the royal blue SUV DJ had bought her to use in "the life." This was her first chance to escape since she tried to leave DJ two months earlier. Her first attempt failed because DJ had secretly put GPS tracking devices on her car and phone.

Laura enjoyed three days of freedom before DJ captured her and left her naked and penniless in a hotel off the highway in southern New Jersey for four days. Then, he brought her to his house and locked her up again — for a month. DJ eventually released Laura to go turn tricks, but only under supervision of Kimmie, another girl in the house.

Laura and Kimmie went out together the next day. Laura tricked Kimmie into leaving her alone in the car while Kimmie met a client at the Plaza. Once Laura felt that Kimmie’s date was well underway, she hopped into the driver’s seat and took off.

Laura called her friend Tonya to meet her at the Queens Midtown tunnel, trembling as she coordinated her getaway. Laura decided to ditch the car and her phone across town from the tunnel because she knew DJ tracked them. So she drove to a garage by the Westside Highway, handed the car to a valet, and threw out her phone. Then she trekked back across Manhattan in four-inch heels to meet Tonya.

After moving onto Tonya’s couch, Laura burned all reminders of DJ — clothing, underwear, photos, and tchotchkes. But she didn’t cut ties with the life. Prostitution provided fast, easy money, and Laura had grown accustomed to a lifestyle that minimum wage work couldn’t support.

She feared DJ, not the johns, or “tricks,” whom she considered easy to manipulate. Sometimes, her clientele of mostly middle-aged and older white men paid $3,000 a night for intricate dry humping. Laura didn’t see any reason to get a regular job.

Laura Abasi* became a victim of sex trafficking when she was 18 years old.
Laura Abasi* became a victim of sex trafficking when she was 18 years old.

In August 2010, almost six years after leaving DJ, Laura walked into a Manhattan holding precinct on Varick Street in a lightweight work dress and heavy handcuffs. Once inside, the officer hollered that he had “another body coming downstairs.” Laura realized she was the body.

Can’t they use any other word?

She began to scream at the officer.

“My name is fucking Laura,” she said. “Laura Abasi, motherfucker.”

Laura didn’t know why she had to sit in the precinct in the first place. If she had one person to blame, it was Norma Platt. Too bad she didn’t exist.

When Laura started turning tricks in 2000, Quinn told her to identify herself to police as Norma Platt. When Laura moved in with DJ later that year, he gave her fake identity documents bearing Norma’s name. Because she incurred all 24 arrests as Norma, Laura technically fled DJ with a clean record.

Norma’s checkered past, however, caught up with Laura at JFK airport in the summer of 2008, on her way home from her grandmother’s funeral in Kenya.

JFK customs officials took her fingerprints and Norma’s criminal record popped up. This detainment triggered two years of court date postponements that Laura didn’t take seriously. Getting caught, however, compelled her to quit the life for good.

Eventually, on an August morning in 2010, Laura’s court date arrived. She expected to get a fine, at most. Instead, she ended up handcuffed in the back of an unmarked Chevy Impala. Immigration Customs Enforcement officers whisked her to the Varick Street holding Precinct. Later that night, ICE hauled her off to Monmoth County Correctional Institution in Freehold, New Jersey.

Six months later, on December 18, 2010, Laura milled around the prison common room after dinner.  She wore long underwear below her burgundy standard-issue jumpsuit to keep warm. She knew ICE sent her to prison for “crimes of moral turpitude,” but she wasn’t sure what moral turpitude meant.

Previous experiences made her wary of lawyers, so she didn’t seek out any representation. Lawyers, however, came to her. In October, two Legal Aid attorneys visited the prison and told Laura she may get deported based on her prostitution history.

Laura didn’t know when her sentence would be over, but she hoped it wouldn’t last too long. So she sat tight and waited to bid goodbye to the 149 other female inmates to whom she spoke as little as possible.

Around 8 p.m., Laura heard a prison guard bellow her name from across the common area.

“Pack it up,” he said, without further explanation.

Laura didn’t comprehend that she had been discharged until the other inmates started clapping.

Packing didn’t take long. Laura retrieved the dress she’d worn to jail and threw books in a plastic bag. On her way out, the prison guard handed her a bus ticket, and pointed her towards a station across a wooded area. The temperature lingered somewhere below freezing and the air assaulted her bones, but she didn’t care.

Following the guard’s directions, Laura ambled through the brush in the general direction of a bus station. After about 45 minutes, she reached a thoroughfare lined with stores. A middle-aged man asked her if she had come from jail, and told her she missed a bus to Manhattan. Then, she heard someone yell her name.

“Laaaura”

Just a hallucination, she thought.

“Laaaura.”

She turned around and saw her best friend Natalie’s Chinchilla jacket. She had no idea how Natalie knew she was there, but she didn’t care. They hotfooted towards each other, shrieking with delight.

On Laura's way to the car, the middle-aged man asked for her bus ticket.

Why the hell not, she thought, and handed it over.

Almost a year later, in November 2011, Laura walked down a cobbled side street in lower Manhattan with one of her Legal Aid attorneys, Meredith Ryan. Laura had an appointment at Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit organization that provided counseling and legal services to victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking. Ryan had reached out to Dorchen Leidholdt, a sex trafficking expert and the legal director at Sanctuary, to prepare for Laura’s deportation hearing.

[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"]

Laura couldn’t see herself as a survivor of modern day slavery, or a casualty of a culture and legal system that patted pimps on the backs and then slapped handcuffs on their human cash cows.

[/module]

Leidholdt had reviewed Laura’s case and determined she was a clear victim of sex trafficking. She saw Laura as a potential candidate for a New York State court process called vacatur, which could expunge her prostitution arrests. Vacatur entailed a separate legal proceeding because prostitution fell under state jurisdiction, whereas federal law controlled immigration.

The idea of another hearing exhausted Laura, but what choice did she have? The past year had been a whirlwind of setbacks. Laura moved in with Natalie after she left jail, and spent a month in a depressed haze. She lost her car and apartment from delinquent payments. Her boyfriend broke up with her. She didn’t have a job. And deportation still loomed on the horizon.

At Sanctuary’s unmarked offices, Laura met Leidholdt and Emily Amick, a young staff attorney. Laura told Amick her story through DJ’s eyes — a beautiful girl lured into a fast life of glamour and money. Laura couldn’t see herself as a survivor of modern day slavery, or a casualty of a culture and legal system that patted pimps on the backs and then slapped handcuffs on their human cash cows.

After Laura finished relaying her saga, Leidholdt and Amick said a lot of things that Laura didn’t understand. She cringed when they called her a victim, but she tried to suppress her frustration. Laura wanted to grab a cab home to Queens and sleep off the meeting.

She agreed, however, to join the three attorneys for lunch. Laura normally shied away from groups of women — flocks, she termed them. But she figured she’d be seeing these women a lot. So, she tried to get comfortable with them.

In April 2012, Laura, now 30, woke up in an Albany Ramada Inn well before her alarm blared. She’d spent many nights in hotel beds with clients, but this time she shared a suite with her attorneys. She had packed black business attire because the occasion called for it, not because men fawned over a hooker who looked like a CEO. Laura had agreed to tell her story at the state legislature to support the latest bill in a wave of anti-sex trafficking legislation.

New York State made sex trafficking a crime in 2007. The Legislature passed a law to recognize children and teenagers inveigled into prostitution as victims of trafficking. Before then, they were criminally liable sex workers.

Amick begged Laura to prepare remarks for her speech, but she decided to wing it. She performed better off the cuff. Laura hadn’t shared her story in public before, and she wasn’t looking forward to it. But, she knew that lawmakers needed to understand why sex trafficking was so lucrative and hard to curb.

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“He beat me every day — I have scars on my face, my scalp just so he could have that control, that mind control.”

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Laura knew from experience that a female body was a more valuable commodity than any illicit good. DJ could have moved several kilos of high-grade heroin a week or sold shiny black Colt 45s by the trunkful, but pimping was a better bet. Higher earnings, lower penalties — the career criminal’s dream. Laura felt a duty to help squash that squalid dream, even if deportation followed.

Laura approached the podium around 9 a.m. and stood before about 30 elected officials. Her name-tag said “Kenya,” the name she chose when her attorneys said she needed a protective alias until her cases ended. Laura locked eyes with Amick and Leidholdt when she started speaking. When she felt tears forming, she tilted her head towards the ceiling. She no longer sounded like DJ’s publicist.

“He beat me every day — I have scars on my face, my scalp,” she said. “Just so he could have that control, that mind control.”

She described a law enforcement system that didn’t try to protect her.

“I was a child,” she said. “I didn’t know any better. I had no one to assist me. I had no one to go to. The police failed me. The judge failed me. Everyone around me failed me. The only one I thought was there for me was my pimp.”

She lamented the label “prostitute.”

“I’m at the point where I just feel worthless because I have this word “prostitution” follow me everywhere. I’m not a prostitute. I’m a good woman.”

The label would follow her for at least another year, until her vacatur hearing.  Laura was among the first persons who could request to vacate prostitution arrests based on her trafficking status. A 2010 bill made vacatur an explicit legal recourse for trafficking victims — which meant sex workers who could show that their pimps kept them in prostitution through coercive tactics that included supplying drugs, withholding identification documents, lying, and threatening physical injury, deportation or public exposure.

Bill by bill, statute by statute, the state Legislature created a new legal system. It not only decriminalized prostitution for trafficking victims, but also gave girls like Laura the chance to re-enter society without stigma.

These anti-trafficking efforts were a huge coup, yet the laws still had gaps and loopholes. New York State was the fourth biggest hub for an industry that dealt primarily in young girls. Slavery was a bustling business, in New York and elsewhere.

When Laura finished speaking, Amick paraded her through a receiving line of lawmakers. In Amick’s eyes, Laura had graduated from survivor to leader. But Laura didn’t see it that way. She was just a woman telling her story, and she was exhausted.

A year later, in June 2013, Laura stood before a judge in a midtown courtroom for her vacatur hearing. Her legal team included Leidholdt, Amick, Ryan, and two more pro-bono attorneys from the white shoe firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. After months of arduous prep, the hearing only took 10 minutes. Laura’s attorneys presented documents. Then the judge shuffled the documents and struck her gavel against the wooden bench.

“Judgment granted.”

The judge vacated all 24 prostitution arrests, which meant that Laura would likely get to stay in the country. ICE had moved to deport her based on crimes of moral turpitude. Her newly clean record, however, bore no signs of moral turpitude. So ICE had no reason to send her back to Kenya.

Laura breathed a loud sigh of relief. She had lived in a daze for two years. Without any way to orient herself in the world, nothing quite made sense. But now, with a clean record, Laura could restart her life.

After hugging her lawyers outside the courthouse, Laura left by herself. She wandered into a restaurant on Broadway for a sit-down lunch. She liked dining alone.

Three months later, Laura arrived at the midtown offices of the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell for The Abely Awards, an annual event to honor domestic violence victim advocates. She walked over to the sign-in table to get her name tag, which said, “Kenya” in black lettering. The Kenya era, however, had ended on August 15, when Laura won her deportation hearing.

With both her prostitution offenses vacated and her deportation order reversed, Laura could resume control over her life. She could call herself whatever she wanted. Laura didn’t fear rebuke from DJ, but her attorneys considered him dangerous and wanted Laura to keep her protective alias. So, she was Kenya for the night.

Women dominated the event, but Judge Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge of the State of New York, was the man of the hour. A week earlier, Lippman had announced the creation of 11 Human Trafficking Intervention Courts to handle all prostitution cases that went past arraignment. The statewide system would be the first of its kind.

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Not all people in prostitution were trafficking victims, but many were. And at least half of these victims were children.

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Specially trained judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors would jointly evaluate cases with a focus on providing defendants with social services rather than prison sentences. The creation of the courts reflected the basic tenet behind anti-trafficking legislation: the criminal justice system should treat people charged with prostitution as victims, not defendants.

Social services, including shelter, therapy, job training and immigration support, could help people leave prostitution for good. Not all people in prostitution were trafficking victims, but many were. And at least half of these victims were children.

Judge Lippman’s announcement came as a surprise, even to insiders like Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, who authored New York’s Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act, among other anti-trafficking legislation.

After Lippman accepted his award, Laura joined Leidholdt to introduce another honoree and one of Laura’s pro bono attorneys, Samidh Guha. During his short speech, Guha told the audience how Laura turned herself into the police when she didn’t meet her nightly quota. She knew DJ would beat her if she didn’t bring home enough money. Jail was a less daunting prospect.

Laura pointed her phone at Guha and joked about Instagramming the event. But as he shared snippets of her trafficking experience, Laura’s face gelled into a sober stare, and she looked up. She had never heard someone else tell her story. Coming from Guha, whom Laura regarded as a legal shark with deceptively sweet blue eyes, the details of her life sounded savage.

She closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath.

“OK, I think I deserve some wine now.”

It was Thanksgiving day, and no one ordered the turkey dinner. As usual, the smell of drawn butter clung to Laura’s apron as she carted around platters of battered shrimp. Laura scanned the few occupied tables in her section and wondered why she agreed to work on Thanksgiving.

Laura began waiting tables at a seafood restaurant after she got out of prison. In the summer, tourists filed into the kitschy eatery for jumbo portions of deep-fried seafood, but cold November weather brought sparser crowds. At times, when Laura collected checks, she couldn’t help but think back to the days when she made $30,000 in one sleepless weekend.

She didn’t mind waitressing. She was good at it, and her coworkers treated her like family. But Laura couldn’t deny that she missed the rush of cramming stacks of hundred-dollar-bills into her purse.

People who weren’t in the life — who didn’t understand the life — were “squares.” Laura knew she could never make it as a square. She tried to leave Amber behind when she left DJ. It didn’t work. At 32, with a clean record, Laura felt ready to start over. But this time, she accepted that Amber was part of her.

Once Laura recognized some of Amber’s contributions to her personality — brazen, strategic, unfazed by attention — she realized she needed to make use of them. Laura used to dread talking to strangers about her past, but she’d come to enjoy it. In the coming months, Laura would appear on the CW news to talk about sex trafficking at the Super Bowl. And in March, she’ll participate in a United Nations panel about prostitution as sex work.

Laura wanted to choose a career that would enable her newfound interest in public speaking — law seemed like a good fit. She once thought of lawyers as paid liars, but then they became her liberators. Some attorneys, she learned, worked hard to do good. Laura now thought she might want to be one of them.

This story produced by the New York Bureau. 

Emerging State Safe Harbor Responses to Sex Trafficking and Prostitution of Minors

We sat in court and Raquel doodled butterflies and rainbows and wrote a poem about feeling lost. I scribbled down our next court date and told her I would meet her in the lock-up when the court officers led her away.

She was my first young client charged with prostitution. Sitting beside me with long fake nails and extensions in her hair, she looked older than her age of 14, but not much.

The idea that our justice system charges young girls like Raquel with prostitution, and sometimes locks them up — she spent one year in detention — shocked my friends and relatives who were frequently surprised about the realities of the juvenile justice system when I shared moments from my work. Prosecuted, even though they are victims of statutory rape and usually sold by fairly organized adult operators, who post their photos on-line to solicit customers or direct them to certain areas or “tracks.”

Though a minor is too young to legally consent to sex with the person he or she is charged with soliciting, the two state courts that have ruled on the issue about whether prosecutors can still charge the minor with prostitution have come out on different sides. Fortunately, state legislators have begun to pass laws to address this problem.

Since 2008, about a dozen states have enacted different forms of legislation, referred to as “Safe Harbor” laws that address this irrationality in the law. (Michigan had previously changed the age of eligibility for prosecution for prostitution). States that have taken action, such as Illinois, New York, Minnesota, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, recognized the inconsistency in their own laws. Many incorporated, at least partially, the notion born in federal law, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, that children under 18 who are sexually exploited in this manner are severe trafficking victims.

The passage of these laws is a great achievement as the bills can face difficult opposition. But even in states that have passed safe harbor laws, there are considerable gaps and shortcomings. These shortcomings result from disagreements about how to effectively address trafficking of minors and fear of “decriminalization,” which leads to too much tinkering with the initial bills.

We now have nearly a dozen different versions of state Safe Harbor laws — no two versions of the laws are the same. They vary quite significantly in terms of age eligibility, inclusion of conditions that may exclude a child from protection from prosecution, and inclusion of funding for services.

For example, the laws in Illinois and Tennessee ended the prosecution of all minors under 18 for prostitution outright, but most other laws limit how and when children will be protected from prosecution. And Florida’s law, passed in 2012, is named a “safe harbor” but does not protect minors from prosecution at all. In some states, like Vermont and Georgia, minors must prove that they are “trafficking victims” even though federal law presumes by definition that a minor who is sold for sex is a victim of a severe form of trafficking. And in Washington, one previous arrest for prostitution will bar a minor from protection from prosecution; additionally, in Massachusetts, protection applies only if the prosecutor consents.

While better than nothing, these conditions can exclude those children most in need, undermining the laws and belying the research about this population; research shows that the relationship between children and those who peddle them for their own financial gain are rife with threats and abuse that make it difficult for a juvenile to break free without a sustained intervention.

We know they need comprehensive assistance, yet some laws do not have a funding or service component, and access to help is particularly important when laws place the onus on the child to prove that he or she is “worthy” of protection from prosecution. These caveats can seem minor but in reality, it frustrates the intention and purpose of a “safe harbor” when kids continue to be prosecuted and have no reason to hope for a better situation.

To be sure, state legislatures that have taken action deserve a lot of credit for their courage and foresight. As the effective dates for some of the new state laws approach, legislators can strengthen them by amending provisions that limit which children can get assistance. Likewise, states considering laws now and in the future, such as California, should maintain the Illinois model, which provides for services and does not prosecute minor victims. (Though the November ballot initiative on trafficking in California does not include a safe harbor provision to prevent prosecution of minors, separate legislation is in the works). Legislators should refrain from diluting the effectiveness of safe harbor laws, taking a firm stance about who to prosecute — those who exploit rather than those who are exploited — and channeling the valuable time and resources of courts and prosecutors in a more effective way.

Human Trafficking is a Growing Global Scourge

Saif, a 12-year-old who has left school, works at a garage in Baghdad July 19, 2009. Saif earns about $20 a week and is a breadwinner of his family. Photo by Saad Shalash / Reuters

This story was produced by New America Media and The San Francisco Public Press

On the 900-mile trek of mostly desert that stretches between Eritrea and Egypt, hunting for humans has become routine.

Eritrean refugees who have fled their homeland fall prey to Bedouin or Egyptian traffickers. The refugees are held for ransom. Those with relatives abroad who can pay for their release might survive. Those who do not are often killed. The United Nations confirms that some are harvested for their organs — their livers and kidneys sold on the black market — while others, the young and able, are sold off.  One survivor told the U.N., “People catch us, sell us like goats.”

Slavery is alive and well in the 21st century. There are more people enslaved today than at any other time in history. The U.S. State Department says that estimates of those enslaved through human trafficking ranges from 4 million to 27 million.

Human trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal business in the world, according to the State Department. It ranks only second to drug trafficking in profitability, bringing in an estimated $32 billion annually. The majority of those trafficked are young adults between ages 18 and 24 — but children also make up a large part of it. Almost all have experienced either sexual exploitation or violence, often both, during their time being enslaved.

But the statistics can be disputed. The United Nations notes that “the lack of accurate statistics is due only in part to the hidden nature of the crime, and that the lack of systematic reporting is the real problem.” In other words, the number of those trafficked worldwide might be far greater than what is estimated.

What we do know is that traffickers practice the trade with relative impunity. In 2006 there were 5,808 trafficking prosecutions and 3,160 convictions worldwide, which would mean that one person is convicted for every 800 people trafficked.

Though most of those trafficked are exploited for their labor and or are thrown into sexual servitude, the area that’s particularly grotesque is the organ trade. One human rights lawyer who did not want to give his name said cases involving the removal of human organs for transplantation are more miserable than those involving genocide.

“At one end someone is killed for their organs, which in some perhaps overly theoretical way is worse than murder,” he said. “In the latter, the victim’s death is at least a motive — the murderer seeks to kill a human being. In the former, the victim is merely a box containing an object, and the murder is merely the process of throwing out the box and wrapping.”

The international commodification of humans is becoming the new norm of our age. In Bangkok, Thailand, a “baby factory” was discovered last year in which more than a dozen Vietnamese women were impregnated (some were raped), and their babies were sold for adoption. Whether or not the babies — unregistered, non-existent in the eyes of the law — were truly adopted, raised to be slaves or farmed out for body parts is not known.

What is certain is that Vietnam, like many other impoverished countries with a growing population of young people, has become a major supply country, where vulnerable young women and girls are in high demand on the international market. In certain bars in Ho Chi Minh City, rural girls are routinely trucked in to parade at auction blocks. The girls are often naked except for a tag with a number on it, and in the audience are foreigners — South Koreans, Taiwanese and mainland Chinese are the main consumers — who call them down for inspection. They leave together under the pretense of marriage after the paperwork is done, but many end up in brothels or sweatshops instead.

Diep Vuong, executive director of Pacific Links Foundation, an organization that works to combat human trafficking by providing education to the poor in Vietnam, is pessimistic. Overpopulated and dwindling in resources, Vietnam is full of young, uneducated people.

“The only resource we have left in abundance are the humans themselves,” she noted wryly. “We’re moving toward the Jonathan Swift version of reality.”

While children of the poor are not being eaten as Swift sarcastically suggested, they are being abducted and enslaved. They work in the fields as slave laborers as in the Ivory Coast’s cocoa plantation where half a million children work and provide 40 percent of the world’s chocolate — something most of them have never tasted. Or they are abducted at ages as young as 5 in Uganda and forced to become soldiers. Or they work in the carpet and brick factories of South Asia, many shackled and branded by their masters. Those too weak to work are killed off and thrown into rivers.

Closer to home, border drug cartels have incorporated the lucrative human trade into their business, and in some parts of Mexico they have the tacit support of the local authorities. Mass graves were discovered last year full of migrants’ corpses. Their crime: They weren’t worth much alive.

The forces of globalization have only intensified the trade in humans. After the Cold War ended, borders became more porous. New forms of information technology have helped integrate the world market. Increasing economic disparity and demand for cheap labor have spurred unprecedented mass human migration. The poor and desperate fall prey to the lure of a better life.

Nongovernmental organization workers who battle trafficking often describe victims as being “tricked.”

In March 2004, eBay shut down sales when it discovered that three young Vietnamese women were being auctioned off, with a starting bid of $5,400. Their photos were displayed. The “items” were from Vietnam and would be “shipped to Taiwan only.”

“I was browsing on the Internet and this guy kept trying to chat with me,” one Vietnamese teenager rescued from a brothel in Phnom Penh recounted. “There’s a coffee shop in Cambodia. He said I could make money over there.”

They crossed the border from Vietnam to Cambodia, and she soon became enslaved. She was saved in a police raid, just as the traffickers were planning to move her again. The madam “was waiting for more girls to show up to ship us to Malaysia,” she said. Her fake passport had already been made.

The trafficking network is sophisticated and well organized, and if the lure of money and a better life elsewhere becomes the entrapment of the poor and vulnerable, the abundance of cheap labor coupled with an atmosphere of impunity becomes the seduction for others to become traffickers.

“A slave purchased for $10,000 could end up making her owner $160,000 in profits before she dies or runs away,” Siddharth Kara noted in a talk on sex trafficking at the Roberta Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies at Northwestern University. In fact, a child in Vietnam can be bought for as little as $400.

Slavery is not going away because the agony of human enslavement remains largely invisible in the public discourse. It is just as shocking that Eritrean refugees are hunted nightly by traffickers as it is that their story remains hidden in darkness.

Teaching the Teachers How to Fight Sex Trafficking

Maria Velikonja speaking at the "Not in Georgia: Combating Human Sex Trafficking" conference at Georgia State University.

Teachers can be the first line of defense against child sex trafficking, according to Maria Velikonja, a former FBI agent who has worked on human trafficking issues for the United Nations. During a two-day conference on sex trafficking at Georgia State University, in Atlanta, Velikonja spoke about the warning signs educators should watch for in their students and what teachers can do to keep their students safe.

The conference, Not in Georgia: Combating Human Sex Trafficking, organized by the Georgia Department of Education, was the third part of an ongoing series of lectures on the sex trade. In a lecture titled, “Combating Human Sex Trafficking in Georgia: What Public School Educators Can Do,” Velikonja began by outlining some of the basics of sex trafficking for teachers.

“What does a potential sex trafficking victim look like?” she asked the small crowd. “They could look like anyone. They could be short, tall, fat or skinny. It doesn’t matter.”

So, if victims of sex trafficking come in all shapes and sizes, what other indicators can teachers watch for?

Teachers should be on the lookout for certain socio-economic factors, Velikonja says. Children living in poverty and children from single-parent households are at risk.

But more important is whether their parents are paying attention and this is not limited to low-income families, she says. In fact, upper- and middle- class families with busy, distracted parents are equally at risk.

The Office of Justice Programs says as many as 300,000 children are at risk for sexual exploitation each year in the U.S. According to Velikonja, they could be boys or girls.But one of the key indicators teachers should watch for is poor or failing grades.

Another alarm for teachers are girls with much older boyfriends, Velikonja said.

“You might see a 13-year-old girl who suddenly starts dating a 17-year-old,” she said.

But, for teachers, it may not always be as simple as having a keen eye, as a great deal of prostitution has moved to the Internet. Text messaging, Facebook and online instant messaging have given child predators easier access to young people who are often not as wary of strangers online as they would be in real life, Velikonja said.

The U.S. Department of Education says teachers should be on the lookout for the following potential indications that a child is a victim of sex trafficking:

  • Has unexplained absences from school for a period of time, and is therefore a truant
  • Demonstrates an inability to attend school on a regular basis
  • Chronically runs away from home
  • Makes references to frequent travel to other cities
  • Exhibits bruises or other physical trauma, withdrawn behavior, depression, or fear
  • Lacks control over her or his schedule or identification documents
  • Is hungry-malnourished or inappropriately dressed (based on weather conditions or surroundings)
  • Shows signs of drug addiction

However, protecting students from the sex trade extends beyond simply acting as a watchdog, Velikonja says. In the classroom, teachers should emphasize that children involved in the sex trade are victims and that the sex trade is not glamorous.

Most important is to teach kids that, reporting incidents is important. If someone they know is involved in the sex trade, not telling adults will only hurt the victim.

In the end, it’s critical parents need to be educated.

“Kids may be easily scared by this,” Velikonja said. “But speaking directly to parents may be more effective.”

Parents need to make students aware of child predators, both online and in real life, she said.

Jessica Smith, a spokesperson for Wellspring Living, a group that helps victims of sexual abuse, said it's up to parents to monitor their children's use of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.

"Most of these transactions happen online," she wrote in an email. "It's the new 'street.'"

Equally as important for parents is to know who your children are friends with.

"Know their friends and where they are going -- always," Smith said. "We have so many stories of girls getting into this because of a friend and being trafficked right under their parent's noses. Know the parents of their friends."

As Velikonja drew her presentation to a close, audience members shared what actions they were planning to take moving forward to combat sex trafficking. Many were going to take further classes about sex trafficking.

One audience member asked the crowd if sex trafficking was being taught in sex education classes in the schools.

One teacher responded, “We’re working on it. We’re working on making it a part of curriculum in social studies classes.

Wednesday, several hundred advocates gathered in front of the Georgia capitol to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the passage of a tough, new anti-trafficking law. Supporters wore purple scarves. The bill increased penalties for those engaging in child sex trafficking.

Modern Child Slavery Alive and Well in the World and Nation

John Last 1As the nation gears up for this year’s Super Bowl in Indianapolis, law enforcement officials there are getting ready for the influx of children and their captors who make up a large part of the sex trade industry. This business always gets a boost from the “anything goes” atmosphere of the Super Bowl. Last year authorities made nearly 60 prostitution arrests during the time around the game, 11 of which were believed to have involved human trafficking. This uptick in activity is only a symptom of a huge problem, both here in the United States and around the globe.

Worldwide, the U.S. State Department estimates that 800,000 people, roughly equal to the population of San Francisco, are trafficked across international borders, about 17,500 of which are brought into the United States. Total revenues of the trade worldwide are estimated by UNICEF to be around $12 billion dollars. The organization believes that 1.2 million children are victimized.

In our own country some 100,000 children who are U.S. citizens are thought to be trafficked annually. Many are runaways, others are victimized by family members or acquaintances. Often the victims are being abused at home, and many are involved in drugs.

The misnomer of childhood prostitution is often used to describe what is happening to these kids, but in fact they are modern day slaves. January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month in the United States, set aside by various groups that are advocating for more protection of kids. Too often this criminal activity is overlooked or thought to occur in other places. In fact it occurs around the country, and includes not just sex workers but other laborers as well. In many states kids are more likely to be prosecuted as prostitutes than viewed as victims.

Federal and state laws have been catching up with the reality of trafficking for a decade or so, but much work remains to be done. In 2000 Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which created new crimes and provided for services to help victims. Forty five states have passed laws that attempt to address the problem of trafficking. Unfortunately, in state systems kids are about three times as likely to be prosecuted, since many of the anti trafficking laws conflict with older laws about prostitution. In many places criminalization is the only means authorities have of removing the kids from the abusive and neglectful environment that contributed to their victimization in the first place. One bright spot, as reported in JJIE was the passage in Georgia of a child trafficking law that reflects the realities of modern prostitution. It acknowledges that the children involved are victims, and increases the penalties for those that exploit them.

One further problem that needs to be addressed is the involvement of undocumented aliens involved in child sex work, since most of the immigrants involved in trafficking entered the country illegally they are subject to confinement and deportation by the federal government as well as criminal penalties. This makes it more difficult for them to seek and receive assistance.

In the commercial world, hotels and meeting planners are being encouraged to sign the Tourism Child Protection Code of Conduct. This is a document that industry members sign in an effort to increase awareness and reporting by hospitality workers. Much prostitution takes place in hotels and motels, and is often in conjunction with conventions. Businesses are increasingly starting to take responsibility for the role that they have played in facilitating these crimes.

However complex and large this problem is, the bottom line is that it is happening in communities around the country, including small towns and rural areas. If you are reading this it is probably happening where you live. As a nation we enshrined freedom into our Declaration of Independence, and made slavery illegal in the 13th amendment to the Constitution. Let’s support efforts to end these practices, by studying, volunteering, supporting organizations that advocate for victims, and by letting our legislators know we care about this issue.

As good as TVPA might be, it is not enough. It was passed 10 years ago and still more than 100,000 people are victimized in our nation each year. This is too many.

State Laws Fail to Protect Children from Sex Trafficking

Most states aren’t doing enough to curb child sex trafficking according to a new report by the advocacy group Shared Hope International. The study, prepared in partnership with the American Center for Law and Justice, graded all 50 states on the strength of their sex trafficking laws. States that protected minors and prosecuted traffickers received the highest grades. But more than half of states received grades of D or F.

Leading the states with grades of B were Texas, Missouri, Illinois and Washington. All received high marks for criminal provisions addressing demand and protective provisions for child victims.

Georgia ranked near the top as one of only six states receiving a C because of its comprehensive human trafficking law and laws combating commercial exploitation of children. But the state lost points because convicted traffickers are not required to register as sex offenders.

The report identifies four policy areas that must be addressed in order to combat the sex trafficking of minors: eliminating demand, prosecuting traffickers, identifying victims and providing protection, access to services and shelter for victims.

“Broken systems of criminal justice and child welfare responses to victims must also be fixed,” the report says, “to ensure that commercially sexually exploited children are treated as victims and provided with remedies through the law to recapture their lives and their futures.”

Former Republican U.S. Rep. Linda Smith of Washington founded Shared Hope International after leaving Congress.

"I was absolutely shocked,” she told NPR.  “When we started sending people into states [posing] as sex tourists, and they would go in, and they would come into the city maybe from another country, maybe from another state, and they could buy kids so easily.”

The report, Smith told NPR, was designed to help states draft model laws to fight sex trafficking.