WASHINGTON (BP)–Most Americans, including far too many government officials, have no idea that children under the age of 18 are being shipped from state to state as child prostitutes, according to a report from an anti-sex trafficking organization.
In fact, an estimated 100,000 American children under 18 years of age are victimized through prostitution every year and children rented for sex acts might be raped 6,000 times over the course of five years. In addition, the United States should be — but is not — listed on the “Tier 2” watch list in the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report.
Those are among the troubling findings by Shared Hope International (SHI), which conducted investigations in 10 United States cities with a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Few participants in the assessments realized that the victims described in the [federal anti-trafficking law] definition of sex trafficking victims included specifically U.S. citizen and lawful permanent resident minors under 18 years of age regardless of their perceived consent to the commercial sex activities,” SHI reported.
The report also found:
— The majority of law enforcement personnel and social service providers have little or no awareness of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), the federal law that provides the means to combat trafficking in persons.
— There is a widespread failure by police, courts and youth shelters to identify under-age victims of sex trafficking.
— Children often are arrested and charged with prostitution, even though the TVPA says victims must not be held responsible for being forced to commit a crime.
— There are few shelters in the country to house and protect minor victims of sex trafficking.
Domestic minor sex trafficking consists of “child sex slavery, child sex trafficking, prostitution of children, commercial sexual exploitation of children … and rape of a child,” the report said. Children are exploited through prostitution, pornography and/or stripping, among other means, according to the report.
It is estimated at least 100,000 American children under 18 years of age are victimized through prostitution every year, according to SHI.
Demonstrating the magnitude of the problem for a single child trapped in sexual slavery, SHI said in its 82-page report published in May: “A domestic minor sex trafficking victim who is rented for sex acts with five different men per night, for five nights per week, for an average of five years, would be raped by 6,000 buyers during the course of her victimization through prostitution.”
Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., who authored the TVPA, said, “It is a problem all over the world and the United States is no exception. There are new victims in our country every day.”
In its 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report, the U.S. State Department cited an estimate by a United Nations agency showing about 12.3 million adults and children are trapped in servitude worldwide. At least 1.39 million are victims of commercial sexual slavery, according to the U.N. report.
The TVPA is designed to help prevent trafficking in foreign countries, as well as in the United States, said Barrett Duke, vice president of public policy and research for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
In an effort to stop domestic minor sex trafficking in the U.S., the law – which was strengthened domestically with the enactment last year of an enhanced version known as the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act — makes it easier to prosecute traffickers by removing the pressure from the victim to testify and creates more pressure for the pimps to be prosecuted by the federal government, Duke said.
Duke said people affected by sex trafficking today are similar to those enslaved in the 19th century because of their race. He calls it the “modern-day slave trade.”
The United States should be on the “Tier 2” watch list in the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report, said Linda Smith, SHI’s founder and president, in the book Renting Lacy, which she wrote with Cindy Coloma. The United States, however, is not included in the Trafficking in Persons Report.
“It is time to expose the true scope of trafficking in America,” Smith and Coloma wrote.
Tier 2, one of three in the State Department’s rankings, is for governments that fall short of the minimum standards required by the TVPA but are making significant attempts to achieve them.
SHI said there are no special services aimed at the population that is the subject of its report, because professionals tend to categorize domestic minor sex-trafficking cases as child sexual abuse.
Because the crime itself is misunderstood, professional groups have no clue as to who has responsibility for domestically trafficked minors, SHI reported. Law enforcement says child protective services is responsible, while child protective services argues the opposite, according to the report.
Only five residential facilities in the country provide healing and restoration to child prostitutes. They are in Los Angeles, New York, Dallas, Texas and San Francisco, according to the report.
“Our shelters and programs for treatment must have the capacity to help trafficked American teens. If we do not, these teenage victims will return to the street … re-trafficked,” Rep. Smith said at a congressional briefing on the report in July.
Linda Smith, who served as a Republican congresswoman from the state of Washington from 1995 to 1999, offered tips on identifying sex-trafficking rings or children caught in sexual slavery in their communities:
— If a foster child talks about having an older boyfriend or having been involved in any type of commercial sex, the child is a victim.
— A child talking about going to a strip club may be in sexual slavery.
— If a child comes to a hospital with an older man, and it doesn’t seem right, and the child has been beaten up, there is a good chance the child has been trafficked.
— A child talking to a school counselor about having sex with an older man or boyfriend may be caught in the slave trade.
— If a child has tattoos of a man’s name or if the child uses words used in the trafficking industry, the child likely is trapped in sex trafficking.
The ERLC’s Duke told BP, “It is our hope and prayer that the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act will break the backs of the world’s traffickers and that it will bring us closer to the day when no human, when no person will be treated as a mere commodity to be used and then cast aside.”
The cities in which SHI did assessments of the problem were Dallas; Forth Worth; San Antonio; New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La.; Clearwater, Fla.; Independence, Mo.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Salt Lake City, Utah, and Las Vegas, Nev. It also did a study of a U.S. territory, the Northern Mariana Islands.
SHI’s report may be accessed online at www.sharedhope.org.
Cindy Ortiz is an intern with the Baptist Press Washington bureau.