Groups work to prevent kids from being lured to work in sex trade
I learned shocking realities about young people who work in the sex trade Thursday when I attended a Congressional field inquiry on trafficking held by U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Matteson.
Kelly gathered representatives of law enforcement, education and social service providers for a “solutions-only” dialog about ways to reduce the number of young people who are lured to prostitution.
“The goal of today’s inquiry is to help make connections and to walk away with tangible solutions that can be implemented in the short, medium and long term to address and prevent trafficking,” Kelly said.
The hour-long dialog was streamed live, and video of the session is published on Kelly’s Facebook page.
Before Thursday’s inquiry, I was aware of legislative efforts to confront the issue. I knew President Donald Trump last month signed into the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act.
Yvonne Ambrose, of Chicago, attended the bill signing at the White House. Her 16-year-old daughter, Desiree Robinson, was found murdered in a Markham garage in late 2016 after being sold for sex online.
The law clarifies that victims and survivors of sex trafficking can take action against websites that enable prostitution. Once Trump signed the law, the notorious site Backpage shut down and Craigslist stopped running personal ads.
“Even when laws are passed, there’s not training all the way down,” said Elizabeth Fisher, president and CEO of Florida-based Saleh Freedom, an organization dedicated to ending sex trafficking nationwide.
I learned from Fisher that many young women and some young men are lured into the sex trade because their need for shelter, food and other essentials that often are not met. Many sex workers were sexually abused as young children, she said.
“The root of sex trafficking (is that) one out of three little girls (is) sexually abused today, and one out of five little boys,” she said. “The gangs are getting ahead of it. By 8 years old, everyone is deceived that this is the only pathway.”
After the session, I searched online and found multiple studies that said incidents of childhood sexual abuse were not as prevalent as Fisher said, but that many incidents are not reported.
I learned that children are indoctrinated into the sex trade at much younger ages than I could have imagined. Also, many young people are willing participants. Some are forced, but others feel like they’re earning money to provide for themselves or, in some cases, their families.
I learned many professionals are insufficiently trained to identify human trafficking. Police might be called to respond to a domestic violence incident in the middle of the night at a motel involving a young woman and a much older man. The individuals might claim to be relatives, and both might deny any illegal activity.
“Human trafficking is not new to law enforcement, but I don’t think it’s heavily focused on,” said Bradley Police Chief Michael Johnston. “There’s a lack of training in our department. I know there are things we could do better.”
I learned in the eyes of the law, an underage sex worker is a victim, not a criminal.
“If we have a juvenile involved in sex trafficking, that is not (a criminal) offense” for the underage participant, said Glen Brooks, director of community policing for the Chicago Police Department.
The challenge is that young people who begin working in the sex trade as teens might not know any other way to make a living as adults. That’s why some nonprofits are focused on interventions with minors by providing positive role models and showing there are better alternatives.
“We’ve helped more than 7,000 girls,” said Sherida Morrison, founder and CEO of the Englewood-based nonprofit Demoiselle 2 Femme, or young ladies to women. “We’re relational, we’re trauma-informed, we’re strength-based, we’re holistic in our practices.”
Since 1998 the agency has focused on preventive measures by offering after-school programs in Thornton High School District 205. The district’s three high schools serve all or parts of Blue Island, Burnham, Calumet City, Dixmoor, Dolton, East Hazel Crest, Harvey, Hazel Crest, Lansing, Markham, Phoenix, Posen, Riverdale, South Holland and Thornton.
I learned that incidents of young people involved in the sex trade largely go unnoticed. They don’t attract attention the way violent crimes and drug deals do.
“Drugs and guns specifically can affect citizens within my town,” said Hazel Crest Police Chief Mitchell Davis. “Human trafficking doesn’t have an effect on the person who lives in my neighborhood, not directly.
“We have to make our citizens aware that even though this is something that may not affect you specifically, that in the whole picture it can and it will disrupt our community.”
I learned everyone should be better trained to identify signs of sex trafficking. The situation reminds me of the, “see something, say something” slogan used to increase alertness about potential terrorism or other serious criminal activity.
“Sex trafficking does not look like the movies,” Brooks said.
“Sex trafficking looks like the guy on his computer in the middle of the night typing away,” Brooks added. “The guy who is doing that who happens to live in a community with single-family homes does not lessen the crime, or the trauma and impact.”
Predators are using old-fashioned techniques to recruit young people to work in the sex trade, said Jordan Mitchell of the Monee-based anti-trafficking nonprofit Provision Lab. The organization sponsors a program called Freedom in Action and hosts a popular annual 5K race in Monee.
“Coercion is happening on a face-to-face level in ways we’ve never seen,” Mitchell said. “We’re unimpressed with online … When a girl or boy gets a face-to-face from this pimp, or this trafficker … they’re getting the attention they don’t get” via social media.
Provision Lab works with municipalities to help firefighters, paramedics, public works employees and others identify signs of human trafficking. Private employers also can help, he said.
“We just got (water utility) Aqua, Comed and Nicor interested in us training their service workers so when they go out to the community they can identify what human trafficking looks like,” and how to contact law enforcement, Mitchell said.
Participants in Thursday’s inquiry pledged to share resources and increase networking opportunities to better combat sex trafficking.
Kelly said she will continue to push for legislation to help give law enforcement and service providers the tools and resources they need to help efforts to keep young people from being lured into sex work.
Kelly is cosponsor of House Resolution 3488, known as the Reducing the Demand for Human Trafficking Act. The measure would give preference to grant applicants to use federal funds “in strengthening efforts to reduce demand for human trafficking through the investigation and prosecution of persons who solicit or purchase commercial sex,” the resolution states.
Fisher encouraged Kelly to consider legislation that would address how young adult women who engage in sex work are subject to criminal prosecution. She proposed that women ages 18 to 21 who were lured into the sex trade deserved to be treated as juveniles in the eyes of the law.
“It’s like deprogramming a cult mindset for these girls,” Fisher said.