CHICAGO-- Although gangs are a chronic problem in many urban and suburban areas of the nation, this city included, certain aspects of gang life don’t receive the attention – and therefore the resources – necessary to combat them.
In particular, the sexual exploitation of girls by gangs is a serious problem currently facing law enforcement, courts, educators and social service programs across the country, according to a panel that met this week to discuss the issue.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention presented a webinar Wednesday through the Missing and Exploited Children’s Program to address promising practices for targeting the commercial sexual exploitation of girls in gangs. The webinar built on MECP’s June presentation about exploitation by offering organizations and individuals suggestions for internal practices and appropriate interaction with victims.
“The top thing that sexually abused, victimized girls say they want in treatment and in custody is someone to talk to,” said speaker Keith Burt, a retired deputy district attorney and former Chief of the Gang Prosecution Division in San Diego. “Someone they feel they can trust, that they can just talk to.”
Although the speakers acknowledged males and transgender individuals suffer from sexual exploitation by gangs, the victims are overwhelmingly female. Burt also stressed that it’s important to remember these youth are not child prostitutes, but actually victims of horrible sexual abuse imposed by sophisticated perpetrators.
“What we do know about exploiters is that they are very organized,” said Jenee Littrell, who directs the guidance and wellness program at Grossmont Union High School District in San Diego, and has experience working with sexually victimized students. “[Exploiters] are making a lot of money out of this. They have a huge investment in staying ahead of us, and frankly, they’re able to respond and move their systems way faster than we are. So the more that we can do to share our information and stay tight together… then the more responsive we’re going to be able to be in identifying and preventing students from falling into this.”
Alfredo Nambo, the principal at Latino Youth High School in Chicago’s Little Village, has encountered similar problems of general sexual violence among his female students involved in gang life.
“Not only does [sexual violence] happen, but there's not a support system for them to come out and get those services that they need,” Nambo said. “And so they suffer in silence that way.”
Nambo’s frustration with the lack of resources for this “rampant” problem was echoed during the webinar. Other problems include limited access to juvenile records and a lack of options for law enforcement when dealing with the victims.
For example, officers have typically been limited to charging youth as underage prostitutes. But the Illinois Safe Children’s Act, signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in 2010, decriminalized sex-trade involvement for children younger than 18. Deemed unable to consent to their own commercial sexual exploitation, minors are no longer considered perpetrators or juvenile prostitutes. And states across the nation continue to pass legislation against human trafficking.
Some states are even developing progressive programs to address the unique situations of these victims. Burt, for example, mentioned the Hawai’i Girls Court as an example of the judicial system effectively addressing the specific needs of girls who have been sexually victimized by gangs. According to its website, the Hawai’i Girls Court boasts an all-female staff and is “one of the first courts in the United States built on a full range of gender-specific and strength-based programming with a caseload targeting female juvenile offenders.”
The Hawai’i Girls Court is just one example of promising methods for addressing the issue. But beyond big scale approaches like a gender-tailored family court, Burt and Littrell stressed collaboration with victims as a means to better understand their situations and move forward together. In response to a question about what small businesses could do to address sexual exploitation by gangs in their immediate communities, Burt suggested owners could essentially befriend the victims. Instead of seeing victims as aliens or a part of a crime problem in front of their business, Burt said this approach could really make a difference.
“You’d be surprised at what information [you] can get, what little thing may… turn the tide for one of these victims in terms of changing her life,” Burt said.
WASHINGTON - Despite pointed criticism from some lawmakers, the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday approved a bipartisan bill that pushes for harsher penalties for people convicted of sex offenses against minors under 12 and authorizes millions of dollars to fight Internet crimes against children.
Sponsored by committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the Child Protection Act of 2012 (H.R. 6063) calls for $60 million a year until 2018 for task forces working to investigate Internet crimes against children. It also reinforces the need for the U.S. Justice Department to appoint a senior official as a national coordinator for child exploitation prevention and interdiction, a position first created by the PROTECT Our Children Act by Congress in 2008.
In addition, the bill widens protections for child witnesses who may be subject to intimidation or harassment, doubles to $4 million the cap on funds available to train Internet Crimes Against Children task forces, and gives U.S. Marshals the power to issue administrative subpoenas to investigate unregistered sex offenders.
Smith introduced similar legislation last year but it did not reach the full House floor for a vote. That legislation, called the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011, was criticized by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association for its wide-ranging implications for online privacy.
As many as 100,000 sex offenders remain unregistered and at large in the United States, their whereabouts unknown, Smith said in his prepared introductory remarks (link to) at the committee’s session Tuesday morning.
“Today, Internet child pornography may be the fastest growing crime in America, increasing an average of 150 percent per year,” Smith said. “Every day these online criminals prey on our children with virtual anonymity.”
Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Mel Watt (D-N.C.) put up some lively opposition, saying that parts of the bill duplicated the protections offered by existing statutes. Their most strenuous objections came in response to provisions that expanded the authority of law enforcement and that appeared to weaken legal protections for people who had been accused of sex crimes but who were innocent.
They especially expressed concern about the provision broadening the authority of U.S. Marshals to issue administrative subpoenas for unregistered sex offenders, a power that Conyers called unacceptable and unnecessary.
“What is an administrative subpoena? It’s a subpoena that the government does not have to go to court to affectuate,” Conyers said.
But the biggest objection raised by Conyers, Scott, Watt and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) was that the Child Protection Act appears to require persons accused of sex offenses to prove their innocence, shifting the legal burden of proof away from prosecutors, a move they called “unprecedented.”
“We have to protect the victims of crime but we have to do it in a thoughtful and deliberative way,” Scott said. “Do we want to reverse the burden of proof in this or any other case without some very, very careful examination?”
Such a provision violated the Fifth Amendment, Nadler said. “What possible justification is there for shifting the burden of proof in a criminal offense and for saying you’re guilty until proven innocent?” he asked Smith. “It seems to me unconstitutional as well as obnoxious.”
“The idea here is to protect the children and to protect the victims,” Smith replied.
Ultimately, all three amendments offered by Scott to address these objections failed to pass.
Thirty-one representatives from both parties co-sponsored the bill, which is also supported by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, the National Sheriffs’ Association, and the Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN), among others.
H.R. 6063 will now head to the full House for a vote. Only about 4 percent of bills that are introduced by federal legislators ever become law, according to this 2009 analysis by OpenCongress.org.
Photo from Digitaltrends.
Jurisdictions that are either developing or trying to enhance programs designed to implement the Sex Offender Registration Act may want to consider applying for a grant sponsored by The Office of Sex Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending and Trafficking (SMART) Support for Adam Walsh Implementation Grant Program. The Sex Offender Registration Act was put in place so it could provide a legal means to protect children from sexual exploitation and violent crime, prevent child abuse and child pornography and promote internet safety. It also helps build a comprehensive national system for the registration and notification of sex offenders.