She was just 17 when she got into prostitution – but she didn’t know she was a victim, at the time. She had been raped and beaten by her father since she was 12 years old. She was desperate for a breakthrough as a model.
“I didn’t understand that it was an upscale call girl,” the sex trafficking victim whose identity is kept anonymous said in a Federal Bureau of Investigation video. “They used us young people because ... we’re young and we’re naive, and nine out of 10 times they’re right.”
By the time she realized what she got herself into, she had been beaten and starved. She left believing that the pimp was possibly going to kill her either way.
“It’s a trap, once you’re there it’s really hard to get out of,” she said.
The FBI shared her story on Monday during an announcement that the latest Operation Cross Country X sting had recovered 82 underage victims of prostitution and arrested 239 pimps and other individuals across the country between Oct. 13 and 16. The international operation, in its tenth year and the largest to date, included Canada, Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines as part of the sting.
“Operation Cross Country aims to shine a spotlight into the darkest corners of our society that seeks to prey on the most vulnerable of our population,” Federal Bureau of Investigations Director James Comey said in a press release.
A dark corner it is: While many may think of sex trafficking as a more common occurrence in developing countries, it is, in fact, a problem in the United States that some say is overlooked. Available data doesn't fully capture the breadth of the problem because many of the victims may be fearful of speaking out or of being charged with crimes, anti-trafficking advocates say. Others may feel threatened by their captors – who in some cases are their members of their own families.
“It has to do with the fact that victims often don’t self-identify,” Staca Shehan, executive director of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), a US nonprofit that worked with the Thailand operation as well, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. Kids often enter the criminal justice system for crimes such as “running away, truancy, drugs, alcohol, petty theft,” she says, but officials and welfare workers fail to notice that “all of those are traumatic side effects to being a trafficked victim.”
It’s a point that Samantha Vardaman, senior director of Shared Hope International, a group that focuses on preventing child sex trafficking, agrees on, adding that when a child is arrested for a crime such as drug trafficking, they often aren’t asked about their motives.
“Nobody ever identifies them as a trafficking victim,” she says. “Plug in any other offense like truancy, kids are picked up for skipping school – well why aren’t they in school? Are people really asking the right questions? If we get the answer I guarantee you the child isn’t going to say ‘I’m being sex trafficked.’ ”
More than 3,000 cases of human trafficking have been reported in the US this year, a majority of which involve sex trafficking, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. While the majority of labor trafficking victims are undocumented immigrants, 82 percent of sex trafficking victims identified between 2008 and 2010 were US citizens, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Such victims are most likely to be black and under 25. The FBI calls human sex trafficking the “fastest-growing business of organized crime” and estimated some 293,000 American youths are at risk of becoming victims, particularly those who were abused or abandoned by their families.
Since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act passed in 2000, officials have undertaken a concerted effort to prosecute traffickers and protect survivors of trafficking by attaching severe penalties to culprits while mandating compensation for victims. Individual states have passed their own laws to address sex trafficking, as have some major US cities, like Los Angeles.
But the patchwork of laws or resources available in different states and cities can cause some young victims to be penalized by the law when law enforcement officials uncover a prostitution ring, Ms. Shehan says.
“In reality if there is nowhere to place the child … there are no beds or runaway homeless youth centers, in those cases if you release the child they’re going to return to the trafficker,” she says. “Sometimes they end up being charged with the crime that is perpetrated against them.”
Often, officials are tipped off about these cases either by coming across online advertisements or receiving tips from the members of the public, some of whom may have become aware of warning signs through public awareness campaigns.
“We really get out of the cities and into the communities that are less-frequently traveled and try to bring awareness to them,” Ms. Vardaman says. “Unfortunately a lot of those locations are where the kids are coming from.”
The Department of Homeland Security posts a list of red flags for community members who regularly come into contact with children to look out for. Indicators include an apparent disconnection from the community or sudden absenses from school. Both Shehan and Vardaman say officials who come across juveniles in the criminal justice system should also scrutinize their backgrounds to identify victims.
“Teachers, the child welfare system, all these different groups need to have an increased awareness of how to better identify this, what are the indicators they should be looking for,” Shehan says. “We need to increase in all different sectors awareness of the crime.”