Protecting the Powerless: Child Trafficking in the United States
All that Kaela* wanted was the security she'd never had. "When I was 12 and living at home, my father was an alcoholic who verbally and physically abused me," says Kaela, a 16-year-old from Toledo, Ohio.
"One day I was out avoiding the house when an older man approached me on the street. He drove a beautiful car, had business cards, and said he had so much money he could give me anything I wanted. I’d never had nice things — or had an adult treat me that well — so after we talked for a while, I got in his car and drove off with him."
Thus began Kaela's four years as a child prostitute. The man, a pimp took her to a truck stop in Harrisburg, Virginia, where she met his stable of six underage sex workers. Together, they shared a motel room and all the marijuana and crack cocaine they could smoke. Turning 8 to 15 tricks per night, Kaela gave her $500 to $1,000 nightly wages to her pimp, who in exchange paid for her food, lodging, clothes, and drugs. She was robbed, raped, and nearly lost to the streets until she entered drug rehab in May 2007 and joined a program to help the victims of child trafficking.
Kaela's case is not unique, according to child advocates, but part of a social epidemic that authorities are only now beginning to address.
"For far too long in America, the attitude toward child trafficking has been that it’s terrible, but happens somewhere else," says Ernie Allen, president of the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children in Alexandria, Virginia. "But this problem exists right here on Main Street, USA."
According to Allen, up to 300,000 Americans under age 18 are lured into the commercial sex trade each year. And according to the Central Intelligence Agency, more than 10,000 foreign children are brought here annually as sex slaves or indentured laborers. Whether they work in strip clubs or sweatshops, these boys and girls are victims of human traffi cking. A $9.5 billion-a-year industry, human traffi cking is on the rise and has been reported in all 50 states.
PREYING ON THE VULNERABLE
Like Kaela, children targeted by traffickers often come from emotionally unstable or economically disadvantaged backgrounds that make them easy targets.
"When I was 10 years old and living in my native Cameroon, my uncle told me I could get a better education if I moved to Maryland and was adopted by a lady he knew," says Evelyn Chumbo, 22. "But the lady kept me locked in the house and forced me to cook and clean for her family. She never sent me to school, and beat me nearly every day. Since my family never had a phone in Africa, I didn’t know how to use one to call for help. I only escaped after two years because my cousin came to work for the lady, saw how skinny I'd become, and helped me run away."
While some traffickers exploit immigrant children, others prey on native youngsters who seem lonely and seek affi rmation from adults. "Children may be recruited by traffickers at shopping malls, in bus stations, and on the Internet," says Karrie Delaney, a spokeswoman for Shared Hope International, an advocacy group in Arlington, Virginia.
Child trafficking victims are often held in illegal debt-bondage, told they owe money for their transport or lodging and that they must work long hours to pay it off. They may be threatened with violence to their families — or with public revelation of their shameful activities. Monitored by cameras and armed guards, they often live in paralyzing fear. Moved from job to job and from state to state, they seldom have relationships outside their virtual slavery and often believe no one cares to help.
EMOTIONAL, PHYSICAL ABUSE
Isolated and exploited, trafficked children may endure both physical and psychological torment.
"Because I was a virgin, the men who brought me to the US to work as a prostitute initiated me by raping me again and again," says Rosa*, 14. After this violent "initiation," Rosa says, "I was taken to a different trailer every day, and every night I had to sleep in the same bed in which I had been forced to service customers."
In response to such trauma, victims often develop drug addiction, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and Stockholm syndrome, in which they come to sympathize with traffickers.
"After the abuse, my pimp would tell me to sit on his lap and ask me what was wrong," says Tina Frundt, a former child prostitute who now works for the Polaris Project, an anti-traffi cking agency in Washington, DC. "When I said, 'You broke my arm,' he hit me and asked me again. I had to say, 'I fell down.' ... Instead of being angry at him, I grew angry at myself for not listening to him in the first place."
If they don't escape in time, as Frundt did, traffi cking victims may embark on a lifetime of at-risk behavior.
"If we don’t catch child sex workers early, 77 percent of them go on to engage in adult prostitution," says Celia Williamson, an associate professor of social work at the University of Toledo and organizer of Toledo's annual Sex Work and the Commercial Sex Industry Conference.
HEALING THE WOUNDED
Congress held its fi rst hearings on human trafficking in 1999, and since then, awareness of the problem — and efforts to fight it — have increased. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 broadened the federal definition of trafficking to include psychological as well as physical abuse. It stiffened penalties against traffickers, extended services for their victims, and required the State Department to impose sanctions on countries with weak anti-trafficking measures.
In 2006, the US government spent $28.5 million to fight trafficking (a 13 percent increase over 2005) and the Department of Health and Human Services announced $3.4 million in new funding for advocacy groups. The Bush administration has made ending traffi cking a major part of its agenda, and more than half of all states now have anti-trafficking laws.
On the grassroots level, groups around the country are providing services and shelter to victims and survivors, reaching out to at-risk kids, creating safe houses, and teaching adults to identify the signs that children are trafficked, including frequent travel, few possessions, hyper-vigilance, malnourishment, and a lack of individual freedom.
On the legal front, activists are working to improve sex offender registries so that they better target child traffickers. They're also working to prevent child prostitutes from being thrown into jail and to instead place the criminal burden on traffickers and their customers. "Children under 18 who are involved in prostitution are picked up, arrested, and prosecuted for it," says Melanie Orhant, managing attorney for the Washington-based Break the Chain Campaign. "Though they are treated like criminals, these minors are actually victims."
"This atrocity can happen in a factory, in a field, or in the house next door to you," says Orhant. "If you think something strange is happening to a child in your life, be a steward of your own power and talk to an agency that provides assistance to the victims of modern-day child slavery."
NCJW IN ACTION
The NCJW San Francisco Section fights human trafficking using a multi-pronged approach, offering services to victims, educating the Bay Area community at large, and advocating legislation to aid victims. To this end, the section has broadened its impact as a founding member of the Jewish Coalition to End Human Trafficking, which works closely with the San Francisco district attorney's office.