Sexual Slavery on Main Street
For 72 hours last fall, FBI agents and local police targeted truck stops, casinos, night clubs, and adult entertainment spots in 36 American cities to rescue teenagers being trafficked for sex.
During the October raids, law enforcement rescued 52 minors (children under age 18) trafficked into either prostitution or adult entertainment. Nearly 700 people, including 60 pimps, were charged. Since June 2003, the task force has recovered 886 minors from the sex industry. The raids have resulted in 510 convictions and $3.1 million in property seizures.
Despite these victories, new research indicates that the sex-trafficking problem in the United States is more widespread and more severe than previously thought.
Shared Hope International, a Christian anti-trafficking nonprofit group founded by former Congresswoman Linda Smith in 1998, received a federal grant to survey domestic sex trafficking of minors. The survey found that many sex-trafficking victims were being misidentified and wrongly prosecuted as criminals. In some cases, the survey found, children as young as 9 years old were being sold for sex by parents or boyfriends in exchange for illicit drugs. Organized crime networks are now using sex trafficking because the risk of prosecution is so low. The survey determined that a high percentage of teens rescued from trafficking return to the system due to the strong bonds they form with their pimps.
"Most Americans do not realize that child trafficking is a major problem on Main Street USA," said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, at a February congressional hearing. "These kids are victims. This is 21st-century slavery."
Researchers estimate that between 100,000 and 300,000 American children are trafficked within the U.S. each year. There is credible evidence, based on arrest statistics and field research, that sex trafficking is getting worse and that U.S. children under age 18 compose the largest segment of trafficking victims in the U.S.
Experts note that one of the greatest unmet needs is effective, long-term treatment for survivors. In one horrific case, authorities mistakenly released a teen victim into the custody of her pimp, who immediately put her back to work.
In recent years, a handful of Christian activists, mostly volunteers, have moved beyond advocacy and legislation, fighting for better enforcement of existing anti-trafficking laws. They play an active role in helping victims leave the commercial sex industry.
Long-term treatment for trafficking survivors—which for some victims takes many years—is where many Christians are also focusing their energy. Late last year, one of the newest residential facilities, located in Asheville, North Carolina, granted Christianity Today access to its group home.
Most residential homes for trafficking survivors are secular and draw upon the larger community for volunteers. But Hope House is distinct for being faith-based, running entirely on charitable giving and Christian volunteers.
Still a Kid
Beads and jewelry-making tools litter the dining room table of a well-furnished home in North Carolina. A side table holds finished pieces made by "Jordan," a 15-year-old girl who lives at Hope House. The seemingly commonplace scene is anything but. Fewer than 50 beds are available in the country for teens escaping sex trafficking, and Hope House has room for no more than five girls. As a teenage survivor of domestic sex trafficking, Jordan has defied the odds.