Sex Trafficking: South Florida’s Youngest Victims

The trafficking of young girls for sex in the U.S. is often overshadowed by the attention paid to the $150 billion international trade. A Crime Report investigation looks at victims and their families in south Florida, now one of the nation’s major human trafficking centers.

To this day, the man who raped 13-year-old Lucia Marie Skelly and forced her into trading sexual favors for money has not been arrested or charged.

That infuriates—but doesn’t surprise—her mother. When Lucia ran away last year from their Fort Lauderdale, Fl., home, the local police didn’t respond to Mary Skelly’s initial plea for help.

“The Fort Lauderdale police never showed up at my house the day I first reported my missing child,” she recalled. “I don’t know why.”

Lucia finally turned up on her mother’s doorstep ten days later, branded with a lotus flower tattoo (the international sign for human trafficking), bruised, beaten and raped (they would later find out she had chlamydia, a disease transmitted by sexual contact, but the hospital did not do a rape kit test).

But getting her daughter back was only the beginning of her mother’s ordeal. Although Skelly provided the Fort Lauderdale police department with the name, date of birth, address, and even the Instagram account of the 22-year-old man who trafficked her daughter—details she obtained from her daughter and her own investigation—no one appeared to follow up on the information.

This doesn’t surprise John Rode, a former law enforcement officer in Miami who now works as a private investigator who searches for missing and runaway children in south Florida, with an organization called Global Children’s Rescue, which he started with his partner, Justin Payton.

John Rode, former law enforcement officer for Miami Vice. Photo courtesy of Mr. Rode

“I think the problem is education within police departments,” he said.

“What’s missing within police departments is an understanding of what human trafficking really is. Human trafficking is not only on the border of Mexico. It’s not only in Arizona and Texas, with young girls coming out of containers.

“Human trafficking starts out as a simple runaway case. Girl runs away from home. A few days later someone takes her in, gets her on drugs, and she’s held against her will. Now she’s a victim of human trafficking. It’s a local community problem.

“The public doesn’t realize that, and the average police officer on the street doesn’t realize that.”

Few Americans, in fact, are aware of the scope of the problem.

Most U.S. media attention has focused on overseas sex trafficking—an estimated $150 billion global criminal endeavor that surpasses the illegal sale of firearms and is expected to soon outpace revenues from the illegal drug trade.

But it has become a growing concern in the U.S. itself. A month-long investigation by The Crime Report in south Florida, a state that now ranks number three in the nation for sex trafficking, according to the Florida Department of Health, found that the region’s mushrooming business of sex trafficking has largely outpaced local law enforcement’s understanding of the issue and ability to cope with it.

More disturbing still: Florida authorities say more than half the victims are under 18.

And for some of the youngest of them, victimization begins a few miles from home—within shouting distance of their families and beneath the radar of local authorities.

“Traffickers aren’t shipping these young girls to France,” said Justin Payton, Rode’s partner at Global Children’s Rescue. “They are (often) just going up the road.”

The Crime Report’s interviews with victims and their families in south Florida made clear that the common perceptions of human trafficking as an organized criminal activity—while accurate as a description of the clandestine movement of labor—do not necessarily reflect the reality of sex trafficking in the U.S.

The victims are almost exclusively runaway youth, whose vulnerability and desperation are exploited by older men. In 2017, an estimated one out of seven runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely child sex trafficking victims.

“I see it all the time,” said Jane Biglesen, director of the Anti-Human Trafficking Initiatives at New York’s Covenant House, a homeless shelter for runaway and trafficked youth.

“A teenager on the street alone, scared and hungry, is a huge target for a pimp. Victims generally are not locked up. Instead, that person feels traumatically bonded to their perpetrator. So they might be allowed to walk around freely but the pimp says ‘if you ever leave I’ll kill you.”

Adds Payton: “It’s happening under our noses every day. A person may appear willing and happy, but feel like they have nowhere else to go.”

That, in turn, is a reason why the special plight of these youngest trafficking victims often escapes the attention of law enforcement. Few police officers have been trained to identify them, and if the girls are picked up in a sweep by law enforcement of sex workers, they may even find themselves subject to criminal prosecution.

Federal law specifically prohibits the sexual exploitation of minors, and most states reinforce this with statutory rape laws. So, in theory, prosecuting a case of child sex trafficking could be as simple as pursuing a statutory rape charge. But The Crime Report’s investigation found that many police authorities were reluctant to prosecute traffickers for fear the case would not hold up in court.

Interviews with families of human trafficking victims, the victims themselves, private detectives, and the Miami-Dade State Attorney, made clear that local law enforcement needs educated, human trafficking personnel on the ground, trained to recognize the signs of human trafficking.

Our investigation focused on south Florida, specifically Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach— large destination cities that attract human traffickers.

The difference that a pro-active, organized approach can make in getting these girls to safety became obvious when we met Miami State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.

Katherine Fernandez Rundle

Miami State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. Photo courtesy Miami State Attorney’s Office.

In 2012, Fernandez Rundle established a multi-agency task force in Miami, considered the state’s principal target city for sex trafficking. The task force included a special police unit that focuses solely on sex trafficking.

All 35 police departments in Miami-Dade County know to call the trafficking unit when they have a case, Rundle told The Crime Report, adding that the effort to raise officers’ awareness begins with the training of all 5,000 police officers on the ground.

“We teach them to recognize the signs of human trafficking,” she said. “Where (to) send victims; how to find them shelter.”

The task force also targets licensed doctors and nurses in the county, who are now required to attend a mandatory training course, and it works closely with THRIVE, a medical clinic established by the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, that helps victims speak freely, away from their traffickers.

The clinic, the first of its kind in Florida, has special accommodations for victims, including increased privacy measures, minimized wait times, a trauma- informed trained healthcare team, and patient-sensitive procedures to reduce re-traumatization.

And, finally, the task force offers training to judges about the unique difficulties of prosecuting human trafficking cases. For instance, victims often do not want to take the stand for fear of retaliation, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still prosecute,” said Fernandez Rundle, noting that as minors, young victims are unable to give consent under Florida law.

“Judges have to be creative with their cases because these are not your typical victims,” she said.

The effort has begun to show success. According to the task force website, as of 2017, police intervened with 582 human trafficking victims and filed 436 cases.

But less than an hour’s drive away, in Fort Lauderdale, the picture is very different.

While Fort Lauderdale (and Palm Beach as well) do have their own human trafficking police units, they do not address the scope of the problem, both Rode and Payton claim.

While establishing a unit is a critical first step, they argued the lack of an organized approach similar to Miami-Dade’s means that trafficking victims and their families are badly served, they said.

The Crime Report contacted the Fort Lauderdale police department several times for comment on the department’s policies and practices, with no response.

But interviews with three mothers in the Fort Lauderdale-Palm Beach area who were willing to talk about what happened to their daughters suggest how much remains to be done.

Mary Skelly

Mary Skelly. Photo courtesy Mary Skelly

Mary Skelly: Heartache Turns to Rage

 When Mary Skelly found out her daughter Lucia was sitting in juvenile detention with chlamydia (after being arrested a second time for stealing her car), she became enraged.

One of the many missteps in her daughter’s case, the hospital forgot, or simply neglected, to do a rape test after Lucia had been raped, branded with a tattoo and trafficked for ten days. The evidence was lost, and a case that was difficult to prosecute from the start, seemed impossible.

Lucia was branded with a lotus flower tattoo, which she told her mother “was put on her in Miami.” Her mother believes she was marked by her traffickers, as it is a crime to tattoo a 13 year old. The lotus flower is the national symbol for human trafficking because it grows in the mud into a beautiful flower, representing the adversity and hardship many human trafficking victims face.

Skelly has an eerie feeling Lucia’s traffickers knew this, and branded her.

Lucia’s involvement with a sex trafficker arguably was fueled by her own rebellious streak.

By the age of 13, she was taking her mother’s car out for joy rides down the Interstate. Her joyrides landed her into the juvenile justice system. After a first 21-day detention in juvenile facility, her mother began sleeping with her car keys and purse at night to ensure her daughter’s joy rides would stop. But on the morning of March 27th, 2017, she woke up to discover her purse, car keys, credit card, gun and social security card were missing.

The car was gone, and so was her daughter.

She called the Fort Lauderdale police on the way to work to report her missing daughter and stolen items. Then she checked her email and noticed a money-wire transfer to a 22-year-old man who she later learned threatened to kill Lucia and her mother if Lucia did not steal her mother’s belongings.

Skelly alerted her oldest daughter, Katie, about the odd money transfer. That enabled Katie to obtain the man’s address, date of birth and criminal history.  Skelly forwarded the information to the Fort Lauderdale police.

The police promised to meet her at work that day (Broward Health Imperial Point, a medical facility where Skelly worked as a nurse). They never showed up.

The next day, she got a call from a different police department, the Broward County Sheriff’s office, saying that her car was at the man’s house and she needed to come pick it up. When she got there, her daughter was nowhere to be found.

At this point Lucia had been missing for over 24 hours, with little to no effort from the police to find her. She was missing a total of ten days, during which time Skelly does not believe the police were looking for Lucia.

Katie Skelly obtained the Fort Lauderdale police report and found out the police had mis-identified Lucia. The report said Lucia had blonde hair and green eyes. Lucia has brown hair and blue eyes.

“Is anyone even looking for my sister?” Katie asked her mother. “If so, they’re looking for the wrong person.”

“They didn’t even want to get the description right” added her mother. “I don’t know if they changed that information yet. It’s unbelievable.”

When Lucia came home ten days later, on April 5, she showed up with a lotus flower tattoo on her neck, a large bruise on her leg, and fingerprint marks on her neck. She was wearing a green camo sweatshirt and sweatpants and thong underwear, underwear her mother had never seen before.

“The girl smelled so bad.” Her mother said. “She looked awful. She couldn’t even walk and she was holding her hip. She hadn’t showered in ten days.”

The first thing Lucia said to her mother was that she was hungry, and that she wouldn’t leave again. But Skelly convinced her to go to the hospital, Broward Health Medical Center, where she used to work in the ER.

In the Emergency Room, Skelly had a few minutes alone with the doctor, where she told him her daughter was kidnapped, raped, returned home, and had not showered yet. Skelly wanted her daughter to be tested by the rape crisis center. As a former employee, she knew the hospital had protocol for situations like this— or so she thought.

In the meantime, Katie Skelly called the police to let them know Lucia had returned. The police showed up at the hospital and put Lucia under custody. There, Lucia became so upset that she had to be sedated.

The next day, two detectives from the Fort Lauderdale police department showed up at the hospital to investigate the case.

One of them interviewed Lucia that day and deemed her “uncooperative,” her mother told The Crime Report.


A younger Lucia in happier days. Photo courtesy Mary Skelly

Lucia was discharged from the hospital five days later, without a rape test conducted. She was sent to a juvenile detention center, with chlamydia.

“This is where I am infuriated” Skelly said. “There was a mishandling from day one, but at the hospital, she was in a position to get evidence taken, and they did no testing. I don’t know why. I don’t think they take human trafficking seriously.

“Fort Lauderdale doesn’t view human trafficking as what it is.”

Lucia is still very hesitant to talk about her story, but she has shared some details.

The teen said she was taken to Club Space in Miami, which experts have said is known for child trafficking (her mother emailed one of the detectives, asking for video surveillance at Club Space, but did not get a response.)

Lucia also said she was hit by a sledge hammer on the leg and was strangled because “somebody thought she stole something.”

She admitted that the trafficker told her he would kill her and her family if she didn’t do what he wanted.

Lucia also gave Fort Lauderdale police the name of another man who raped her, but according to Skelly, a detective interviewed the man, who said he had nothing to do with it, and the police department took his word for it.

Currently, Skelly lives in Long Island, New York, because she could not stand to live in Florida anymore. Lucia waits at a mental health treatment facility in Gainesville, Fl., and will be moving to New York with her mother shortly.

She hopes to start eighth grade next year.

 Editors Note: After speaking with The Crime Report, State Attorney Fernandez has decided to take on Lucia’s case and provide a lawyer and a human trafficking specialist to interview and investigate Lucia’s claim she was taken to Club Space in Miami.

Nicole Twist

Nicole Twist. Photo by Megan Hadley

Nicole Twist: A Rescue Opportunity Missed

Sophie Reader, 15, was last seen on video walking down the street, alone, at 3 am in Fort Lauderdale on May 19th, 2017. According to Sophie’s mother, Nicole Twist, a police car drove by her, but did not stop. She has been missing ever since.

Twist said she saw the original video footage, but claimed it was since edited to remove the cop car driving past.

“They drove right by her. They could have saved her.”

According to Twist, Sophie started acting out after she turned 11. She suffered from bipolar disorder and had sudden outbursts, but her mother noted she was also very naive and impressionable.

“More so, naive,” Twist recalled.

Twist believes that Sophie, wherever she is in the world, is being trafficked, and that her traffickers found her on social media.

About a year before she went missing, Twist found Sophie on a “sugar daddy” website, an online website for selling sex. Apparently, Sophie had been on several similar websites. Notably, in one of her final diary entries, Sophie wrote that “she finally found a grown-ass man that loves her.”

She also had $400 in cash under her bed.

Sophie was living with her father at the time, and Twist believed she was going down a dangerous road. Her mother remembered shopping with her, and Sophie wanted to buy thigh-high stockings. Twist refused.

“I told her I don’t know what you’re doing but it’s not going to be good,” she recalled. “I told her she was going down the wrong path.”

Then, in their last conversation over the phone (on Sunday May 14th, six days before Sophie went missing), Sophie told her mother she was going to California to be a model. The conversation, according to Twist, was “over the top” and “bizarre.”

“She kept saying how beautiful she was. It was so bizarre. I had never heard her talk like that before.”

Twist didn’t realize it at the time, but Sophie was likely being fed that by her traffickers. They were giving her a sense of “fake confidence” that Twist advises all mothers to look out for.

When Sophie ran away from home on Friday, May 19, her father went down to the Fort Lauderdale police station and filed a missing persons report.

But, according to Rode, a missing persons report can take between three and five days before it reaches a detective.

The long waiting time can be detrimental to a missing persons case, because the first 48 hours are critical to finding a runaway or missing person.

“It takes several days for a missing person report to get to a particular sergeant,” the ex-Miami Vice cop explained.

“The sergeant then assigns it to a detective. That’s a delay of three to five days before a detective can investigate. In Sophie’s case it was even worse because she had a prior runaway report. The police assumed she would come back again. But two days turned into two weeks. And she’s been missing for over a year now.”

Payton agreed.

“The first 48 hours of a missing child is a crucial time,” he said. “Police underutilized this time by assuming the young girl will just come back.”

Two weeks after Sophie went missing, Payton and Rode had taken on the case. The two private detectives were sitting at lunch with Mrs. Twist, calling Sophie’s phone over and over again (which had been turned off), and finally the phone started to ring. Once the phone rang, it could then be tracked. Peyton and Rode handed this information over to the Fort Lauderdale police right away, but law enforcement did not follow up on it until a few days later.

By then, it was too late.

Nicole Twist

Baby photos of Sophie Reader. Courtesy Nicole Twist

“That was our last chance to get her back safely,” said Payton. “That phone could have been tracked on a Sunday. That phone needed to be tracked immediately. They waited too long. That could literally be the difference between life and death for her.”

For Sophie, it might have been. She has been missing for over a year now, and the police have no active leads, her mother said.

The detective from Fort Lauderdale told Twist she thinks about Sophie’s case all the time, but she is not sure she believes it.

“I don’t think police department cared about me as a mom,” she said. “When your child goes missing it’s the worst thing in the world and to be insensitive to that… to not have the time to return a phone call… they need training.”

About a month before Sophie went missing, her and her friend went to a hotel in Fort Lauderdale with two older men, where they were given drugs and Sophie “had sex” with a 27-year-old. However, under Florida state law, it’s defined as rape and punishable by imprisonment for at least 30 years or life, for anyone over the age of 18 to have sex with a minor.

As far as Twist knows, “nothing ever happened to the guy” but the police have his information.

“I don’t know if the police interviewed those guys or not, but the thing is these guys did it to Sophie and they are doing it to other girls as well,” she said.

In her darkest moments, Twist believes it would be better if Sophie were not alive, because the alternative is much worse: life as a sex slave.

But she has a message for her daughter: Just come home.

“I know if she is able to come home, she would come home. She knows how much I love her and no matter what she did, she is always going to be my kid, my baby. Once a mom always a mom. You always love your child.”

Jack Hadley

Colleen Hernandez. Photo by Megan Hadley

Colleen Hernandez: Daughter Chained to a Pole

As Colleen Hernandez was reminded by the Palm Beach police department, her daughter was not the only missing persons case they had. Hundreds of kids went missing each month, they told her. While Hernandez understood that her 15-year-old daughter could not be the center of attention for an entire police department, at the end of the day, she didn’t care.

“I was concerned with my own child,” she said, “and I do not believe police did everything to find her.”

At first, the Palm Beach police department was responsive to Mrs. Hernandez. They sent a detective out to interview her on the first day her daughter, Jane (who asked that her real name remain anonymous) went missing. Hernandez was also given a missing persons coordinator.

But as time went on, Hernandez discovered that it took days, sometimes weeks, for the coordinator to follow up on the leads she had been providing. Notably, leads were only followed up if Hernandez’s detective was working, and if no other cases were being worked on at the time.

Meanwhile, her daughter Jane would go on to live in a tent for 100 days, being pimped out to a 35-year old man named “G” in exchange for crack, which she would smoke with “Eric” her trafficker, who was also sexually abusing her.

One of the first places Jane went when she ran away was ‘tent city,’ a living area for homeless people behind a Home Depot in Palm Beach. It was 1 am and Jane was on her way to her grandmother’s house, but she was hungry so she decided to stop at Dunkin Doughnuts, right next to Home Depot. There, two men stopped her and summoned her over to the tents. They smelled the weed she had on her and wanted to smoke.

Jane ended up staying at ‘tent city’ for a few days, where she was raped by a 20 year-old man named “Edgar.” She described the scene in an interview with The Crime Report:

 He started pulling me into a hug. He started taking off my clothes. I told him to stop. He had sex with me. I thought ok this is not happening again. I didn’t want it to happen. The fourth or fifth day, he asked if we could do it again. He said he would do it anyways. Edgar had sex with me again.

Next, Jane went to see her friend Eric, a 19-year-old who was living in a tent behind his grandma’s house. The two had started talking on Instagram, and Eric said she could stay with him for a little while.

There, Jane was sexually abused every day by Eric, who threatened to kill her if she ever left. Jane did attempt an escape once, but Eric ran after her, and then chained her to a pole. He was also cutting her with razors and slowly starving her.

Then, Eric started selling her to his friends in exchange for drugs.

He traded traded my body for crack to his friend. His friend is G. G is 35 years old and said he liked younger girls. I felt like a noodle because I was so high. I told G ‘stop I don’t want this.’ He told me ‘I don’t care.’ I was smoking crack at this point. I was never addicted to crack until I came here.


The “Tent City” in Fort Lauderdale, where Jane met her trafficker. Photo by Megan Hadley

But when Jane told the Fort Lauderdale police her story, they told her it would be too hard to prosecute, because there were too many “inconsistencies.”

Because Jane had said yes to Eric a few times, the detectives did not think the case would hold up in court.

Jane later explained to The Crime Report that there were a few times she said yes to Eric because he was hitting her and slicing her with razors, and she was scared.

Eventually, Eric’s grandmother found Jane, and sent her off. Jane showed up at her own grandmother’s house 100 days later in the pouring rain.

From there, the police took Jane back to Eric’s house to retrieve her clothes. As far as the Hernandez family knows, Eric has not been investigated by the police, although Jane gave the police all the names and details of the men who sexually assaulted her.

The Palm Beach police department does not consider Jane’s case a human trafficking case, but she does.

“I didn’t ask to be sold for drugs,” she said. “I was not OK with having sex with 35-year-old man so Eric could have crack.”

Megan Hadley

Megan Hadley

When Jane looks in the mirror now, she does not feel beautiful. All she sees is a damaged person.

Parts 2 in this series will take an in-depth look at Global Children’s Rescue, and its efforts to rescue trafficked children. Part 3 will examine the detrimental role social media plays in child sex trafficking, and how technology such as facial recognition, could be used to recover missing and runaway youth.

 Megan Hadley is a staff reporter for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.


Shutdown of Sex Sites Puts Lives at Risk, say Indigenous Women

The so-called FOSTA-SESTA legislation aimed at curbing sex trafficking has increased the vulnerability of women in tribal lands for whom sex work is often the only way of earning a living, a Native American call-in show was told Thursday.

A law signed by President Donald Trump this spring to curb sex trafficking has created new risks for sex workers in tribal lands, Native American women and advocates said Thursday.

The women, speaking on Native America Calling, a live call-in program dedicated to issues specific to Native communities, charged that the so-called FOSTA-SESTA legislation has made life more “dangerous” for sex workers—and has left Native American women especially vulnerable.

“The intention sounds positive, but the impact that [the law] has on people who are being trafficked and on sex workers is pretty negative,” said Becki Jones, a sexual health educator for Planned Parenthood of The Rocky Mountains, and a member of the Diné tribe.

The House bill known as the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Senate bill, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which were combined into a single package, were welcomed by some groups as a victory for sex trafficking victims.

But, said Jones, FOSTA-SESTA’s restrictions on commercial sex sites effectively removed sex workers ability to the “screen for particular clients that might be super violent.”

By shutting down what amounted to protective online resources for sex workers, the measures in effect closed off a source of networking and mutual aid for women whose occupations often left them victims to violent predators.

The show’s guests said many Native American women turned to sex work because of the scarce opportunities for other work in a climate where tribal values largely empower men.

With few other work options open to women, they said sex work deserves legal protection and must be de-stigmatized.

“The stigma is definitely hard to talk about and combat,” said Jones. “I hear it in the classroom, too. One way I can combat and stand up for sex workers is to help squash myths (such as) talking about how sex workers are ‘dirty’, or have unprotected sex, when in general a lot of sex workers take really good care of themselves, of their bodies, and of their health.

The central intention of the law is to crack down on online prostitution rings. Its supporters claim that one key measurement of success will be its ability to reduce female homicide rates resulting from Craigslist personals ads.

Nonetheless, participants in the “Native America Calling” program said, the law has also had the consequence of forcing sex workers to revert to street walking and other high-risk methods of the sex trade.

“There are not a lot of resources for sex workers, and a lot of law enforcement were getting tips from these websites, as well,” said Jones.

Online sex work allows a worker to screen the individual requesting sex, and gives the worker the agency of selecting her client, rather than being forced to accept any and all requests, she said.

Until the passage in April of FOSTA-SESTA, Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act ensured that user-generated content that was posted to websites was not the legal responsibility of the website to police.

Now, under the FOSTA-SESTA laws, websites themselves are responsible for such content. Many websites have thus deleted sexual classified ads and services, consensual or not.

“These new laws are completely dangerous,” said Cheyenne Antonio, another Diné, who is Sex Trafficking Program Coordinator of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, and an advocate of legalizing prostitution.

“Sex work is a human right, and the criminalization of sex work was the root of the problem.”

However, none of the guests on show said they would advise or encourage a young person to enter the sex industry.

“The only reason that sex work is more dangerous is because it’s not legally protected,” said Alex Trujillo (of the Diné and Laguna Pueblo), and a trans sex worker.

“There are no laws in place to protect sex workers, and if we face violence we can’t go to the police because prostitution is illegal. We’re being murdered as trans women at really fast rates.”

Alex was raped in high school, and after graduating she became a sex worker.

“My sisters are having to go back to pimps,” she said. “It’s really heartbreaking, and this bill has messed up our lives in ways you can’t imagine.”

Trujillo spoke about the importance of philosophically distinguishing between selling yourself and selling a service.

“It’s like any other form of labor,” she said. “I feel like if we separate selling yourself from selling a service; that’s really important because selling yourself is dehumanizing, but that’s not what sex workers are doing.”

The distinction between sex workers and victims of sex trafficking was a distinction that the program’s guests were eager to point out, as part of raising awareness around sex work and to humanize those who work in the sex industry.

“This bill was put in place by rich white men, and when I was doing in-person escorting, that was 90 percent of my clientele,” said Trujillo. “I feel like the reason this has been done is because if it was legalized there would be ways to trace it back to see, oh, this person paid for sex work.”

Antonio wrapped up the program by describing her organization and the importance of having a conversation with sex workers about on what screening “looks like now that we can’t practice sex work online.”

The organization does street outreach, but Jones said more services are needed, such as “drop-in centers, condoms…we need to share as many resources as we can and maintain our visibility on the streets.”

The full program can be accessed here.

In an earlier program, Native American transgender inmates revealed abuses they had suffered since the Trump Administration reversed measures aimed at helping them avoid discrimination behind bars.

John Ramsey is a news intern for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


The Deadly Consequences of the Anti-Sex Trafficking Law

Since the federal legislation was passed in April, three women have been murdered and dozens more are missing. That was inevitable when the shutdown of sex sites like Backpage forced sex workers back on the street and into the clutches of pimps, writes an advocate for decriminalization of prostitution.

What if I told you that scientists found something that decreases the female homicide rate by 17.4 percent, and our government just abolished it? That’s exactly what happened when the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, HR 1865 (commonly called FOSTA/SESTA), became law on April 11.

The bill would allow the government to prosecute websites which knowingly help or promote sex trafficking, and also allow users to sue those websites.

Although the Department of Justice went on record warning that FOSTA/SESTA would make it more difficult to prosecute sex trafficking cases, the bill was framed and sold as an anti-trafficking measure.

FOSTA/SESTA effectively modified section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, which exempted websites from criminal charges for the actions of their users.

For example, even though crimes such as murder and sex trafficking have undoubtedly been planned in Facebook groups, posts, or messages, Facebook could not be held criminally liable for the murders or sex trafficking. Now all that has changed: Any website that is used to facilitate prostitution can be prosecuted for sex trafficking.

Although advocates claim that FOSTA/SESTA was aimed at taking down the site, Backpage was actually seized by the Department of Justice and its owners arrested and criminally charged before FOSTA/SESTA passed.

Backpage was, allegedly, violating laws that already existed.

There has been a lot of social science research on how to reduce sex trafficking, how to reduce violence and exploitation in the sex industry, and the impacts of various policies with regards to sex work and sex trafficking. An example worth exploring is New Zealand, which has almost completely eradicated sex trafficking by decriminalizing prostitution. One case of trafficking was reported in 2015—the first since 2003—and another in 2017.

There are other examples. Amnesty International conducted research into the impacts of sex trafficking and prostitution policy in Papa New Guinea, Norway, Argentina, and Hong Kong, and found that the only way to protect the human rights of people in the sex industry is the complete decriminalization of every aspect of consensual adult sex work.

Similar policy positions are held by Human Rights Watch, the World Health Organization, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, the United Nations Development Programme, UN Women (the United Nations body focused on gender equity), and UNAIDS.

All over the world, when prostitutes and sex trafficking victims are criminalized, they are denied access to the equal protections of criminal and labor law and become easy targets for violence, exploitation, and trafficking. In countries where sex trafficking victims and their clients, coworkers, and others they might come into contact with are able to report sex trafficking without being arrested themselves, there is virtually no sex trafficking.

When Craigslist, a simple, low-barrier internet advertising forum in the US facilitated many sex workers moving indoors from the street, according to the authors of the 2017 study noted above, the female homicide rate dropped by 17.4 percent.

FOSTA/SESTA was not based on research, or even consideration of its impacts. A report from the House Committee on the Judiciary explained the background and need for the legislation: websites “have become one of the primary channels of sex trafficking,” and advancements in technology “allow[s] traffickers to post advertisements of minors for a world of customers” and therefore we must stop websites which “facilitate prostitution.”

Throughout the report sex trafficking is treated as synonymous with the sex trafficking of children.

Let’s unpack that. How much online prostitution involves sex trafficking?

Let’s use a number that was widely circulated during FOSTA/SESTA lobbying efforts: Backpage is said to have hosted one million prostitution advertisements per day. How many of those million ads were for sex trafficking victims? A nationwide FBI initiative with agents in every state, Operation Innocence Lost, as well as hundreds of state and local task forces, a dozen or so sex trafficking hotlines, and numerous religious groups were able to identify 595 cases of sex trafficking in 2016, the last year for which the data is available.

Of those cases, 46 involved minors. Since we know sex trafficking is under reported by its criminalized victims and by witnesses who are most often criminalized, let’s just round those numbers up and, say, double them. That would give us 1,200 sex trafficking victims, 100 of them children, per year. In that case, by their own numbers, our government just put one million Americans out of work because one in 833 of them is a victim, and one in 10,000 is a child victim.

The effects of FOSTA/SESTA were immediate and extreme. The day that it passed the Senate, deleted itself and all its escort ads. Reddit deleted sex work-related forums like r/hooker, and there were reports of Google drive deleting content of users who were sex workers.

The next day, removed ad boards for the US (a few days later they blocked access from the US entirely). Craigslist deleted its personals section, and a popular screening website—used by escorts to warn each other about violent clients and to check whether those inquiring to be new clients have blacklist reports or not—took down a majority of its content.

Over the next three weeks, almost every escort advertising, screening, and website building site in the US went down. The remaining sites and new sites hosted outside of the country have yet to be found by most of those one million advertisers or the majority of clients.

Sex trafficking victims were sent back to work on the streets, where they face higher rates of violence and make less money. Sex workers also turned to the streets and to pimps to find customers. The St. James Infirmary in San Francisco reported a fourfold increase in street-based sex work in the first week after FOSTA/SESTA passed.

With no way to find customers, some trafficking survivors returned to pimps they had previously escaped. In the weeks following the passage of FOSTA/SESTA, three women were reported murdered after turning to street work, dozens are reported to be missing, and violence against sex workers skyrocketed.

NOTE: Because sex workers are often in the closet, and it is seen as counterproductive to tell police that a murder victim or missing person is a sex worker, it will take a little longer for the hard data to be sorted.

I asked one sex trafficking survivor, who is still dealing with the effects of criminalization, what she thought about FOSTA/SESTA. She responded:

I want to know, how are they supposed to rescue these girls if they don’t know where to find them? It’s real messed up that they think that every female is being sex trafficked and wants to be saved and so they take the only means of making money away.

Take me for instance: I have a full-time job with overtime, so I never get to see my kid. Because not only do I have the son that I’m paying child support on [back child support from when she was incarcerated] I also work to be able to pay the bills. (I’m) never able to save anything, and live in a studio apartment with my eight-year-old.

Now if I could go on a few calls and then be able to save and get a two-bedroom that would work but no, that is not allowed. I feel like we’re stuck in a vicious cycle of never going forward. Like one big giant hamster wheel.

In a blog post entitled, “After Fosta, It’s like Hunger Games on Sex Workers,” a Rhode Island sex worker rights group called COYOTE RI gives a snapshot of emerging data. Of 260 sex workers they surveyed, 77 percent used sex work for their sole income and 75 percent were supporting one to three dependents. Within two weeks of Backpage going down, a quarter said they were unable to support themselves or their dependents, six to 10 percent were facing eviction, 30 percent had stopped screening clients, and 60 percent had taken sessions with unsafe clients they would not have normally seen.

A million Americans have lost their livelihood and face increased violence while dozens are reported to be missing and probably murdered because politicians believe that all or most of them are that one in 10,000 that is a child victim of sex trafficking.

This incongruency has caused some to hypothesize that the government is not worried about children; rather, it is horrified by people having sex.

Meanwhile, the government has failed to address its own child trafficking problem. A 2016 Senate report found that the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) placed unaccompanied minor immigrants in homes without doing background checks of the adults in the homes or even visiting the homes. In one case, DHHS placed “a number” of children with a group of sponsors who were neither background-checked nor prevented from “accumulating multiple unrelated children.”

Those children were trafficked to work 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week, on an egg farm. Following the report, the DHSS and the Department of Health and Human Services agreed to establish joint procedures for placing unaccompanied migrant children within one year.

Tara Burns

Tara Burns

More than 17 months later, the agencies have not completed the procedures and DHHS reports that it has “lost track” of 1,475 children. That’s 32 times the number of children who were confirmed to have been sex trafficked in 2016.

Perhaps it is time for a law that would hold government actors responsible for the fates of the children they are responsible for—or the murders of sex workers and sex trafficking victims in the wake of FOSTA/SESTA.

Tara Burns lives in Alaska, where she’s a board member of the Community United for Safety and Protection. She is the author of the Whore Diaries series, and has written about sex worker issues for AlterNet, Vice, The New Inquiry and others.


Sex Workers Fight Efforts to Link Prostitution with Trafficking

As the campaign against sex trafficking emerges as a $47 million cottage industry, it has also spurred a “moral panic” that sex workers say has made them increasingly vulnerable to police abuse, and turns them into targets for those with religious or moral objections to prostitution.

At the height of national outrage over what government officials and activists call a human trafficking “epidemic,” sex workers are challenging what they say are misleading and harmful efforts to link prostitution to sex trafficking.

“People have used this moral panic, this idea that there is a trafficking epidemic, to create so much funding and so much policy that now that they’re being pressured to show the evidence—to show the sex trafficking arrests,” said Tara Burns, researcher and founding member of the Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP), a group of former and current Alaska sex workers allied with sex trafficking victims.

“That’s where we see police arresting [prostitutes] for sex trafficking themselves, just so they can get those sex trafficking numbers up, and match the moral panic they’ve created.”

CUSP is lobbying for the passage of companion bills (HB 112/SB 73) in the Alaska Senate and House which would expand sexual assault laws to explicitly prohibit law enforcement from sexual contact with trafficking or domestic violence victims—as part of its continuing campaign to protect sex workers from laws that make them “vulnerable to violence and exploitation.”

In California, another group is challenging a state law that criminalizes prostitution, and asking a federal court to allow for a closer examination of studies that link consensual sex work to sex trafficking.

In January, a three-judge panel in the 9th circuit dismissed a suit by the Sex Workers and Erotic Service Providers Legal, Educational and Research Project (ESPLERP) to declare unconstitutional state laws that make prostitution a crime. The panel sided with 13 state and national organizations that wrote in to oppose ESPLERP, arguing that prostitution needs to remain criminalized in order to combat the “attendant evils” of violence against women, drug abuse—and above all, sex-trafficking.

ESPLERP filed for a rehearing before the full 9th circuit on January 31, wanting the court to subject the studies it cited to a higher standard of review. But in an era when pornography has been declared a “public health crisis” linked to modern-day slavery, researchers who do not openly condemn prostitution are fighting an uphill battle—and sex workers themselves find it hard to be heard over the din of victims’ advocates who would speak for them.

9th circuit

ESPLERP members and their legal team in court on Oct 2, 2017. Photo courtesy of Maxine Doogan

Maxine Doogan, founder of ESPLERP, says that denying sex workers equal protection under the law has led directly to abuse by police and other authorities, and that she and other people in the industry cannot report actual cases of forced trafficking without fearing arrest themselves.

“There are many people, many women, that I know who are prostitutes, who have been caught up in these prostitution sting operations; and have been sexually assaulted by the police, and raped,” she said in an interview with The Crime Report.

“Our activity is illegal. and so that just gives license for anybody to do anything to us that they want at any time, and get away with it.”

In the document submitted to the California court, opposition groups argued that “prostitution is sexual coercion, and closely related to sex trafficking,” and that “decriminalization of prostitution will legitimize sex trafficking.”

The authors of the opposition brief cited numerous “authorities” for their argument, identifying in particular eight publications by Melissa Farley, a clinical psychologist and anti-pornography activist well known for her view that sex work is “a particularly lethal form of male violence against women,” and an expression of “male hatred of the female body.”

“To the extent that any woman is assumed to have freely chosen prostitution, then it follows that enjoyment of domination and rape are in her nature,” Farley wrote in a 2000 article for Women & Criminal Justice.

But according to independent scholars in the field, the majority of the publications cited in the opposition brief have not only been debunked, but also discredited in the Canadian Supreme Court during cross-examination. The court subsequently struck down Canada’s anti-prostitution laws, finding them unconstitutional because of the negative impact they had on the safety and lives of sex workers.

Doogan notes that victim advocates are “not challenging the men who really have control over our world.”

She added: “They want to dismiss the sexual violence that we’re talking about that goes on with police.”

Doogan and other sex-worker advocates argue that the majority of people being rounded up and arrested during anti-sex-trafficking sweeps such as Operation Cross Country are not slaves held in bondage, but women working together, or as independent prostitutes– a claim supported by investigative journalists following this arrest data.

CUSP’s Terra Burns, who has analyzed thousands of charging documents from several states over the past five years, said that the most serious cases of child sex trafficking “are for the most part not cases that are being found in prostitution stings, [but] cases that are being found because somebody came forward and made a report.”

And in jurisdictions that aren’t aggressively charging people for prostitution, more sex workers are coming to police with tips, she added.

Burns, who herself was sex trafficked as a child, has lobbied extensively for legislative amendments in Alaska. She helped push through bills at the state and county level to allow immunity for sex workers reporting a crime, and hopes Alaska legislators will place priority on the proposed measure to make it illegal for police to sexually penetrate someone they were investigating.

“When an officer coerces you into having sex with him under the threat of arrest, or another kind of threat, that is an act of violence,” Burns said.

Police don’t need to have sex with someone in order to charge them with prostitution, but it happens. She describes one charging document where a police officer paid for a hand job at a massage parlor. “They could have arrested her right there, but instead he waited and got a hand job. and then he put her in handcuffs. And when that happens, it’s really traumatic.”

alaska legislature

Doogan (left) and Burns, introducing their first bills. Photo courtesy of Terra Burns

Other charging documents, published on CUSP’s website, describe police having multiple sex acts with women before arresting them.

The Alaska Department of Law as well as the Anchorage police continue to oppose the no-sexual-contact bill, and it has stalled for almost a year.

See also: ‘Invisible No More:’ The Other Women #MeToo Should Defend

In addition to government task forces, the anti-trafficking movement has also created a $47 million cottage industry of victim advocacy.

Significantly, in order to receive funding, organizations are still being asked to sign a Bush-era anti-prostitution pledge (also known as the “global gag rule”), even though it was ruled unconstitutional in a 2013 Supreme Court decision.

The same goes for researchers, according to George Washington University sociologist Ronald Weitzer, who has studied the sex industry and human trafficking for over three decades, and who served as an expert witness in the case before Canada’s Supreme Court. Before the gag rule was overturned, he was asked to sign the pledge in order to conduct an academic literature review for the National Institute of Justice.

“It’s shocking that even something as mundane as a literature review in this area becomes politicized,” he told The Crime Report.

More recent examples include University of Nevada researcher Barbara Brent, who was part of a 2014 task force developing a trafficking education program for first responders in Nevada.

In an email to The Crime Report, she wrote: “Participants, including Las Vegas Metropolitan Police, who receive federal trafficking funds, indicated that I could not include sex worker rights organizations on the team to develop programs because that violated their grant agreement. The task force eventually fizzled out, and I don’t know what happened to those efforts.”

Last year, the New Hampshire Human Trafficking Collaborative Task Force broke ties with its grants manager, Kate D’Amato, for apparently supporting decriminalization during a public event. The Manchester Police Department said D’Amato’s opinions violated a federal grant, though it is unclear whether that claim was ever challenged.

“What it means is often you’ll get religious or evangelical organizations, both in the US and internationally, to get funding for anti-trafficking work but have very little expertise in the area,” said Weitzer.

“And this was a major criticism of the bush administration funding for many of these anti-trafficking organizations during that period.”

For example: Priceless Alaska, a Christian anti- trafficking organization that works closely with law enforcement, engages a team of volunteer mentors to work with trafficking victims. By way of preparation, mentors receive a three-day training. According to its website, the training “focuses on the mentor’s personal spiritual development first and sex trafficking-specific training second.”

Among the organizations that signed on to the ESPLERP opposition brief was Covenant House, the largest privately funded agency in the US that provides services to homeless and runaway youth. Last year, Covenant House worked with Loyola University to produce a multi-city report on forced labor and sex trafficking. The report claims that one in every 5 homeless youth are victims of human trafficking.

In Anchorage, that number was even higher: “Study: 1 in 4 homeless youths in Anchorage victims of human trafficking,” the local headline read.

But Burns, who has been collecting state and county arrest records for over five years, says that the data don’t add up, and that the report is intentionally misleading.

“Nobody’s been charged with trafficking a minor in Alaska since 2008,” she told The Crime Report.

In 2014, following the national trend, Alaska created the Special Crimes Investigation Unit, which is devoted to finding and rescuing juveniles who are being trafficked for commercial sex.

“They’ve existed with that mission for four years now,” said Burns, “and have yet to charge anybody with trafficking a minor.”

The problem with the Loyola report, according to Burns, is the way it switches between various definitions of a sex trafficking victim; from youth that are not involved in the commercial sex industry at all, “youths that are underage and just trading sex for survival means,” and youths who are being coerced or held in bondage and commercially trafficked.

“If [Loyola researchers] had talked to a youth who actively had a violent pimp, they would have had to report that to police and the police would have gone in— because they’ve been looking to charge somebody with trafficking a minor, obviously, to support all this rhetoric. We would see some charges if it were actually going on in that way,” Burns said.

But when “you’re not being honest about what you’re actually talking about, and then you’re turning around and saying ‘oh these kids are being kidnapped by pimps and forced into prostitution’— then the policy that ends up being created is not going to serve those actually kids that really exist–that are out there having survival sex right now.”

Fundamentally, Burns believes that this study—and others like it—are compromised by the “religious agenda” underlying the moral campaign.

“Covenant House and Loyola University are both religious organizations who have a religious agenda to prevent other people from having sex that they disapprove of,” she said.

What Burns has found by looking at thousands of charging documents is that the majority of people arrested in “sex trafficking” stings are women working together as prostitutes, or with a driver—both things that increase safety in the sex industry, she says.

Just three people were charged with sex trafficking in the first two years of Alaska’s new sex-trafficking law. One was a dancer charged with sex trafficking herself, according records Burns obtained.

Another was Amber Batts, the owner of the online escort service Sensual Alaska. Prosecutors were unable to charge her with force, fraud, or coercion, since people were working for the service of their own free will– but they still convicted her on charges of 2nd degree sex trafficking. She was sentenced to five years in prison.

“When you think of sex trafficking, you think of people that are held against their will and made to do things that they don’t want to do,” Batts’ sister, Tiana Escalante, told The Crime Report.

Escalante described being shocked to learn that a woman can be charged with sex trafficking in Alaska for a consensual act—even when she is working independently.

“I think it’s kind of outrageous. It’s her body, her right to choose.”

Meanwhile, despite the funding for sex trafficking “rescue” operations, Burns says that as a first responder she has been unable to get law enforcement to investigate two recent cases where victims were held against their will and sold for sex. In the first case, she said the FBI told her there was not enough evidence.

“I’ve been involved in or around criminal investigations for quite a bit,” she said. “There was so much evidence, there were text messages.”

In the second case, she said, despite having an admission from a violent pimp on social media, “the FBI told me they didn’t have time.”

A year ago, Burns helped one victim who was violently trafficked make a report to the FBI, and managed to get her money from the state Victims of Violent Crimes Compensation Fund.

“But the people from the violent crime compensation board actually called me up and let me know, ‘you won’t be able to receive this money on her behalf because we can’t give money to organizations that don’t oppose prostitution,’” she said.

Describing people who have illegal sex as being incapable of making a choice, or too corrupted to understand their own victimhood, isn’t a new strategy.

“It’s very similar if you look at the history of the laws against gay sex and the stigma around gay people… you look back and remember [people said] ‘well, there’s only gay because they were abused as children. And so the gay people are going to go out and they’re going to rape our children,’” Burns said.

“That’s the same kind of stigma that we see around the sex work. Well, prostitutes are all either victims, or they started out as victims and now they’re going to go and victimize somebody else.

“Imagine if you saw the same kind of rhetoric around domestic violence victims. Saying that domestic violence victims need to be arrested because they’re too morally damaged to know what’s good for them.”

This is precisely what Doogan and her cohort are trying to face down in court. As a sex worker and founder of ESPLERP, she insists that she is not a victim.

“If you were a victim advocate, I wouldn’t even bother talking to you,” she told The Crime Report. She calls them the “Anti’s.” “I think that they’re extremely tone deaf.”

“They’re treating us like the sex slaves that they think that we are. That’s the problem with their approach. I stopped talking to them because they don’t want to hear, and take responsibility for their own exploitative behavior.”

Members of the media are some of the worst perpetrators of this narrative violence, says Doogan, “renaming us, reclassifying us, stripping us of our agency.

“We have been barred from our own authority on these issues.”

Those interested in watching oral arguments in ESPLERP v. Gascon can view them here. Victoria Mckenzie is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments. 


Courts Fail Sex Trafficking Victims, Webinar Told

Justice-involved women, particularly women of color, are often “exploited” twice: first by human traffickers, and then by a court system that focuses on punishment rather than on providing the trauma services and counseling they need, said a New York City judge.

The rising number of incarcerated women has focused more attention on the need for trauma-informed services for domestic abuse and trafficking victims, New York City judges and advocates told a webinar organized by Project SAFE in partnership with The Center for Court Innovation Thursday.

Many women passing through the criminal justice system are victims of sexual abuse and exploitation, rather than being convicted criminals—but courts often aggravate the harm already done to them, said Toko Serita, a judge at the Queens (NY) Misdemeanor Treatment Court.

“The courts are further exploiting their victimization,” Serita said. “There’s something wrong with seeing women in court who shouldn’t be there in the first place because they were forced into prostitution.”

The webinar, titled “Specifying the Needs of Justice-Involved Black Women,” noted that a substantial number of those caught in the prison pipeline are women of color, and many are victims of domestic violence or human trafficking.

Speakers detailed the importance of intervention courts, such as human trafficking courts, drug courts and mental health courts, which provide treatment and assistance for women all over New York City.

Black women represent 30 percent of all incarcerated women in the US, although they represent 13 percent of the female population, according to research.

They are also among the nation’s most vulnerable population. Those found working for massage parlors, escort services, and strip clubs are more likely to be arrested for prostitution and loitering–even though many are victims of human trafficking, the webinar was told.

In 2013, then New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman spearheaded efforts to address the problem of criminalizing abuse victims by creating eight new human trafficking courts, in addition to three working courts in Queens, which included judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys who were informed about the dynamics of sex trafficking and could offer services to victims.

These courts refer victims to social services, vocational and educational training, domestic violence and sexual assault services, and substance abuse and mental health treatment centers.

Victims who comply with the mandated services have the opportunity to receive non-criminal dispositions or dismissal of their case.

“This has been a quite successful model,” said Judge Serita, who said her court now hears 200 cases a year.

However, it can be difficult to measure the success of human trafficking courts: Often, victims return to their pimp or former abuser.

Compared to drug courts, which have been proven to reduce recidivism, it may take a woman between seven and eight attempts before she leaves her abuser, said Afua Addo, a coordinator for Gender and Justice Initiatives.

“When someone is being trafficked, you’ll see them re-arrested a number of times because they don’t have a choice in what they’re doing,” Judge Serita responded.

“They might be under the control of a pimp and not have many resources. I have never put anyone in jail because they were arrested for another prostitution charge.”

When it comes to trafficking and sex abuse, there is never a “perfect victim,” the webinar, which was held during “Human Trafficking Awareness Month,” was told.

See also: The Link Between Opioid Abuse and Sex Trafficking

The unique circumstances each individual faces makes it difficult to provide a uniform response from the courts.

“It’s more how can we help this person so she doesn’t get arrested again and can leave her trafficker,” said Serita.

Significantly, trafficking victims are always in recovery from traumatic experiences, and understanding how trauma is perceived can help the criminal justice system move forward with trauma informed care, she continued.

Domestic violence is another form of trauma that can lead to incarceration, and 80 percent of black women in prison have been abused by a husband or loved one, reported the webinar.

Largely, the victimization of women reflects the issue of how women are valued in society, noted Addo.

“It’s hard to acknowledge black women as victims in need of care and support because of systemic racism and sexism.”

Childhood abuse also plays a role in the pipeline to prison.

“Youth who experience childhood trauma and neglect are 59 percent more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, 29 percent more likely to be arrested as an adult and more likely to commit violent crime,” according to Project SAFE.

“And girls often are on the receiving end of abuse and neglect, twice the amount as boys.”

The most important thing we can offer victims of abuse is an open door, Addo said.

“You can’t force someone to leave their abuser—but you can provide an open door.”

Editor’s Note: Anyone who wishes to access the full recording of the Webinar “Specifying the Needs of Justice-Involved Black Women” should contact Mara Chin Loy at

Megan Hadley is a staff writer at The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


The Link Between Opioid Abuse and Sex Trafficking

Few Americans realize that sex trafficking is as close to home as their own communities. As the nation notes “human trafficking awareness” month, a West Virginia advocate explores the special tragedies it inflicts in a state that leads the nation in both poverty and drug addiction.

January is “Human Trafficking Awareness” month, but for many Americans the term is likely to call to mind Hollywood scenarios, with Albanian Mafiosos kidnapping fresh-faced college students, vile foreign millionaires in the shadows bidding on scantily clad girls quaking on auction blocks, while a hero (Liam Neeson, maybe) is prowling in the background, hell-bent on rescue and vengeance.

Actually, the trafficking problem is much closer to home. The Hollywood scripts make great movies, but they are a far cry from what trafficking victims actually experience, and they sidestep what amounts to an epidemic in human trafficking that is playing out in communities across America.

A case in point is West Virginia’s eastern panhandle, where the Shenandoah Women’s Center has been operating for over 30 years to provide services to victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, LGBT targeting, and trafficking.

In our state, which leads the nation in poverty and drug overdoses, trafficking frequently looks more like this: A drug-addicted parent loses his or her job and other supports, and spirals downward into addiction. With nothing left to sell or steal, the addict decides to sell their partner—or their child—for drugs or money.

“Anne” is a classic example of how the opioid crisis in West Virginia has fueled human trafficking. Anne was a 25-year-old white woman with no kids, living in the urban Martinsburg area. She had a history of childhood trauma and no stable family ties. After Anne’s boyfriend started using heroin, she soon became addicted as well. A few years into their relationship he told her that she would need to start sleeping with some of his friends and drug connections.

Although Anne didn’t want to, she did it. About a year into the arrangement, she encountered some violent johns who wanted her to perform sex acts she wasn’t comfortable with. Anne told her boyfriend that she wanted to stop. It was at that point that he threatened her life. Finally, after a brutal rape, she called our hotline and entered our shelter.

Anne was one of the first victims our agency labeled as being trafficked by an intimate partner. Although we had been serving victims like her for years, we hadn’t been identifying them as trafficking victims. Anne said that many of her friends on the street had similar stories, and in fact, referred a number of women to us over the years.

Identifying victims of inter-familial trafficking can be difficult. Children often are unaware that money has exchanged hands. It is common for perpetrators to go through a grooming process with young teens who may feel that this person is their “boyfriend.” Meanwhile, the individual is not aware that he or she has been bought for sex.

Crittenton Services is a trauma-focused residential treatment facility serving girls in ages 12-18 in West Virginia. In a Jan. 3 interview, Laura Smith, clinical therapist at Crittenton Services told NPR’s Morning Edition that at least nine of the 30 girls living in the facility at that time reported they were sexually trafficked by a family member.

“So in those cases, they don’t understand mom or dad is getting money on the side from that relationship, too,” Smith said. “That part is kind of hidden, usually when the girls feel like they’re in a relationship with those individuals.”

Intimate partners such as wives or girlfriends are sometimes viewed by the legal system and those “outside” of the situation as prostitutes or, perhaps, as victims of domestic violence.

But under the definition of trafficking as the “use of fraud, force or coercion to obtain labor or commercial sex, they have been trafficked. Additionally, while the vast majority of trafficking victims are female, boys and men are not immune.

Our program serves the three counties in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, home to both rural and DC Metro areas. Berkeley County is split down the middle by Interstate 81. Easy travel via the Interstate, close proximity to large cities, the desperation of living in an extremely rural and impoverished state all make our region susceptible to both trafficking and opioid abuse.

According to Shared Hope International, 90 percent of prostitutes and those working in the commercial sex industry are controlled by a pimp or a trafficker. That staggering statistic should give us all pause.

We see them every day: Young girls and women walking the streets of downtown Martinsburg, near the 7-Eleven. Hanging out at the hotels on Winchester Avenue where most of us wouldn’t even pull in to do a U-turn in broad daylight.

What if, instead of a fleeting moment of pity and revulsion, we thought of these people as victims? Are they drug addicts? Probably. Addiction has been an issue with at least half, if not more, of the trafficking victims we serve at the Shenandoah Women’s Center. It is much easier for a trafficker to control an addict.

“You can make someone do just about anything when they are dope sick,” according to Katie Spriggs, executive director of the Shenandoah Center.

Consider this. The average age a victim enters “the life” of prostitution is between 12 and 14. Traffickers are experts in selecting victims who are vulnerable and even have their own glossary of terms to refer to both perpetrators and victims.

For example, a “Romeo Pimp” prides himself on his ability to control his girls primarily through psychological manipulation. These pimps often shower their victims with expensive gifts, dates, and affection while recruiting them, but extreme violence is a constant threat.

In 2016, Carlos Curtis, currently serving a life sentence for trafficking a 12-year-old girl, spoke to a Baltimore Sun reporter about the grooming process.

“Why does a prostitute need a pimp?” Curtis said. “To guide her, to love her, to protect her. The pimp is her father that she never had. He is that big brother that she misses, or the boyfriend from back in the day…

“He is the popular guy in school that never paid her attention in class. To her, he is what Christ is to a Christian… The blood that pumps in her heart and keeps her legs moving. Without him, there’s no her.”

The term “Guerilla Pimp” refers to a pimp who uses physical violence and force to control his victims. If a girl is resistant to being “turned out,” she may be put through the “seasoning” process. This includes psychological abuse; gang rape; beatings; sodomy; deprivation of food, water and sleep; holding her children hostage; or threatening loved ones.

Seasoning is a pimp’s way of breaking victims and ensuring their compliance. When a vulnerable girl realizes what she has gotten into, it is often too late for her to escape safely, or the feelings she has for her trafficker, similar to those of victims of domestic abuse, keep her tethered to him by a sick sense of loyalty and gratefulness.

To date, the Shenandoah Women’s Center has served an estimated 150 victims since 2012.

“As we have done our research, trained our staff, and done outreach, our numbers are rising exponentially. We realize now that we have been serving trafficking victims all along, but they were not labeled as such,” Spriggs said.

“We have no way of knowing how many we are missing. I think the problem is much bigger than anyone realizes.”

What can the average person do to help? At the Shenandoah Women’s Center, advocates are trained to recognize and serve victims of Human Trafficking. We conduct outreach to truck stops and hotels. We partner with local medical providers as well as interested persons in the community to enable them to recognize a victim when they encounter one. We provide medical and legal advocacy, counseling services, an emergency shelter, and a 24-hour victim hotline for victims all at no cost.

We also reach into schools to talk to kids about this issue in hopes of preventing students from becoming victims, and to enable teachers and counselors to spot at-risk children.

Rebecca Bender, a survivor and nationally recognized expert on domestic Human Trafficking, says that it is time to stop glamorizing prostitution and the sex industry. Lured away from her Oregon home with her young daughter by her trafficker, whom she thought was her boyfriend, she was trafficked in Las Vegas and traded between three pimps for six years before escaping.

“Those who bought me were usually in denial. They wanted to believe I was working my way through school and that I was, in fact, that independent ‘happy hooker’,” Bender said. “They’d say things like, ‘You’re putting yourself through college, right?’ As if they were grasping at any last justification of their own conscience.”

On her website, Bender said the day of reckoning is on the way.

“It will be here sooner if the truth about prostitution were known,” she writes. “If men and women would stand up and start changing the way our culture glamorizes and normalizes ‘prostitution.’”

Each of us can do something.

Educate yourself on this crisis. Have compassion when you see someone you think could be a victim. Teach your sons to respect women, and most importantly, hold your daughters close and show them how special they are.

Step into the life of an at-risk young person in your circle.

Kristin Detrow

Kristin Detrow

You could be the one who prevents him or her from falling prey to a modern-day slave owner.

Kristin Detrow is is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and three children in Maryland. She is a Sexual Assault, Stalking and Human Trafficking Victim Advocate at the Shenandoah Women’s Center in Martinsburg, WV. Kris welcomes readers’ comments.


‘There’s No Such Thing as a Child Prostitute’

California’s efforts to implement two major new laws to help sex-trafficked kids are hampered by cultural stereotypes held by law enforcement and some legislators that criminalize the youngsters, a Los Angeles journalist discovers.

Despite California’s efforts to switch to a victim-centered approach for its sexually trafficked youngsters, change has not come easily or quickly.

In the last two years, two important and well-intentioned new laws affecting youth who have been sexually exploited have been passed, but the culture surrounding the issue of trafficked young people is still hard to change, according to Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California, and chair of the California CSEC Action Team Committee.

She points for example to California’s State Bill SB 855, passed in 2014, which allocating $14 million in funding to provide state-mandated local training for foster care workers plus implementation of support programs for victims of commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC).

It marked the beginning of getting people to look at the entire problem differently, but  it still did not clearly identify CSEC kids as victims of abuse, Heimov said.

“Even within the child welfare community these victims weren’t victims — they were criminals — young people who were making conscious choices to sell themselves for sex.”

The initial goals for those who work with trafficked youngsters are in many ways heartbreakingly basic, said Diane Iglesias, senior deputy director of the state Department of Children and Family Services.

After identifying the affected young people and getting them into a support network, she said, workers hope to persuade their traumatized charges not to run away from their safe housing and back to their pimps who, while abusive, are at least familiar.

Only once the cycle of running away is broken, she said, can the trafficked young people embrace treatment.

“The challenging thing to understand is where on a continuum, from group home, to remote location, to locked up, does this child need to be,” she said.

Yet, even more basic than those concerns is the fact that, until very recently, trafficked kids were still being arrested.

Senate Bill 1322 passed in 2016, banned law enforcement from arresting minors involved in the sex trade, except when their safety may be at risk. This bill was an enormous and essential step in treating sex trafficked kids as the victims they are and directing them toward social services, rather than cells, child advocates say.

Sponsored by Democratic Sen. Holly Mitchell and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, SB 1322 became active on Jan. 1, 2017, formalizing a statewide commitment to recognize these young people as crime victims with unique vulnerabilities — not as criminals.

But passing a law is one thing, changing a culture’s perception is another.

On Dec. 31, 2016, the day before the law was to kick into gear, Republican state Assemblyman Travis Allen published an op-ed in the Washington Examiner stating falsely that California had just “legalized child prostitution.”

The Glacial Pace of Cultural Change

Now, even with SB 1322 in place, for certain segments of the culture, such as law enforcement, the shift in perspective has been complicated.

“Los Angeles is doing a better job of getting law enforcement to the table, but statewide it has been very difficult,” Heimov explained. “The challenge is, we have some [officers] saying, ‘Well, now that there’s no crime, there’s nothing we can do’ and that is a part of the attitude and culture change.”

Leslie Heimov. Photo courtesy Children’s Law Center.

Police have two main functions in serving their communities, she said. One is to prevent, stop or react to crime; the other is the peace officer or safety role.

So, “when they see a member of the community in distress, they’re supposed to do something about it,” Heimov said. “If a cop sees a 4-year-old alone on the street corner they don’t just walk away because the child isn’t committing a crime.

“They’re supposed to investigate why the child is alone and bring them to safety.”

Similarly, if a police officer sees a person on the street in the early hours of the morning and she appears to be a trafficked minor, the police officer’s proper role is to bring her to safety.

“But there’s a lot of law enforcement that is not there yet because they haven’t completely made that emotional shift to seeing the child who looks like a prostitute as a victim,” Heimov said.

Maheen Kaleem, attorney at Rights4Girls, explained why this cultural shift in the system is an essential part of the two-step process of seeing and then addressing the problem.

“[Before this legislation] the child welfare system wasn’t recognizing these kids as being trafficked because of the fact that, when kids went missing from placement, there weren’t protocols in place to look for them or to flag that they needed to be sought out,” she said.

In other words, when a kid disappeared, often running away from their foster care group home and into the clutches of a trafficker, many times no one bothered to look for them, unlike what would occur if a loved and cared-for child vanished from their family.

Identifying Commercially Sexually Exploited Children

As Heimov said, SB 855 and 1322 now provide counties with funds for CSEC prevention and intervention, and a list of services that are specifically designed with the victimized children in mind. However, the first challenge across the state, say advocates, is still identifying these children.

In San Francisco, calls to the San Francisco Human Services Agencyhotline come from multiple sources: teachers, shelters, group homes, police officers or anyone who identifies a child, said agency program analyst Johanna Gendelman.

“These calls aren’t coming in in the middle of the night. You’d think, ‘Some kid is being pulled out of a hotel at 3 in the morning,’ but our statistics don’t really show that,” she said. “Kids are mostly being identified through the day from their foster care provider, from their school, they are running away from health clinics.

“And the calls are mostly coming in during the day.”

Although there have been two or three instances “where the police have pulled kids out of hotels,” she added.

Once trafficked youth are discovered, the next step is bringing them to a safe space, something that isn’t always easy to find.

“It’s a challenge in stabilizing the youth, and it’s a challenge of child welfare in general,” Gendelman said. “We don’t have enough foster parents in San Francisco. We often have to send our children sometimes as far as Stockton [California].”

The lack of appropriate foster parents means, it’s “difficult to place that child in a loving community,” she said. “We struggle with this in child welfare generally,”

With research pointing to a large portion of the CSEC population having been recruited from group homes, and foster care in general, child welfare advocates say there is a distinct line linking the issue of child sex trafficking, in part at least, to a problem that many have long been pushing to address.

Changing the Before and After of Child Sex Trafficking

According to the California Child Welfare Council, a high percentage of youth who fall prey to sexual exploitation had prior involvement with the child welfare system, very often in group homes.

Nearly half (46.7 percent) of minors statewide who are suspected or confirmed as victims of domestic sex trafficking ran away from a foster care group home, according to the Center for Public Policy Studies.

Assembly Bill 403 took effect on Jan. 1, 2017, with the purpose of ending the group home model in order to better address the needs of the harder-to-place youth who enter the child dependency system.

Older kids, highly traumatized youth and children, and kids who have been affected by sexual trafficking are typically put into group homes, and most often a series of group homes, where in too many cases their emotional needs are not met nor are they kept safe.

With these problems in mind, AB 403 mandates that all the group homes in the state’s 58 counties are required to relicense themselves as Short Term Residential Therapeutic Programs (STRTPs), centers that are designed to provide individualized treatment services for each youth for a short period of time. Then, ideally, the youth move on to a healthy, long-term placement with an appropriate family — either with relatives or a foster family.

However, two years after AB 403’s passage, this mandate still seems to be more wish than accomplishment.

“I don’t think there’s been a lot of on-the-ground change,” Leslie Heimov said. “There’s promise of change and there’s hopefulness regarding change, but we aren’t there yet. The most difficult-to-place kids still go to group homes.

“Kids with the most challenges and the highest needs still go to group homes.”

While everyone agrees that the new system required by AB 403 will be an essential improvement for the state’s most at-risk foster kids, victims of child sex trafficking included, 10 months after the legislation and its Continuum of Care Reform (CCR) was to begin, there appears not to have been all that much progress.

“This isn’t going to be something where we flip the switch and see all the children out of group homes,” said Greg Rose, deputy director of child and family services for the California Department of Social Services.

According to Rose, the CCR implementation has three main goals:

  • The provider community makes the shift from group homes to STRTPs.
  • The Resource Family Approvalprocess for foster care families starts, so the families can provide specialized services for victimized foster youth.
  • Continuing efforts to increase the number of foster care families continue.

Goal 1: Making the Shift to STRTPs

“The multisystemic treatment foster care homes, which we think hold great promise, they’re funded,” said Heimov, “but as far as we know, only a handful exist. There are very few spots for these high-end, single-child foster homes.”

In other words, while the state statute has been passed with the intention is to create nurturing environments for CSEC and other high-needs youth, with rare exceptions, the execution still needs to happen.

“The county has made funding arrangements and authorized them, but they don’t have the actual real people trained and ready to receive children,” Heimov said.

Until Goal 1 can be met, namely the opening of fully operational STRTPs, Rose explains that reliance on what is known as “congregate care” will be used, but only for a very limited time. And while kids are in these group homes, they are to receive “therapeutic interventions” — services such as counseling, health screenings, mental health services and other assistance aimed at improving the wellbeing of youth waiting for a more permanent placement, ideally with a family.

(To augment the reform that AB 403 requires, in 2016, California passed Assembly Bill 1997, which reduces the number of days kids can stay in individual counties’ problem-plagued emergency foster care shelters—used to house children facing emergency transitions between homes—from 30 to 10-day stays.)

There are deadlines for the transition from group homes to STRTPs. Former group home providers who serve foster youth must make the change no later than the last day of 2017. Providers that serve exclusively probation-involved youth, however, may request extensions through the end of 2018.

“The purpose of the STRTPs is to create a protocol whereby kids who are new to the system or who have experienced some sort of placement disruption are properly assessed to really identify their needs,” Rose said.

And, since these are short-term programs, he said, administrators will be planning for a youth’s discharge into placement with a family from day one.

According to Rose, the new short-term therapeutic facilities will be able to create specialized programs and treatments by placing children who suffer from similar experiences in the same treatment homes, so that they can get the services they really need rather than be subjected to one-size-fits all programming.

Advocates also hope that limiting the time that trafficked youth spend in facilities, away from a family or home environment, shrinks the window of opportunity during which they can be lured into trafficking, either by older kids or pimps who have previously made good use of a flawed foster care system.

Still, living in a group care environment for even up to a month is not in children’s best interest, Rose said. “We are asking the county to focus on finding families for those youth immediately, rather than sometime in a 30-day period,” he said.

But, as Heimov made clear, the kind of short-term treatment facilities Rose described are still more model than reality.

Which brings us to the second and third goals.

Goals 2 & 3: Resources and Families

Another fundamental principle of CCR is that when children get their permanent homes, they should not have to change placements to get the services they require. Research shows that being placed in foster care is traumatic enough. For placements to be successful, behavioral and mental health services should be available in an in-home setting.

Rose stressed the importance of thoughtfulness when placing a child with a family, so that he or she can experience consistency in relationships as well as permanency and stability. In other words, there’s no point in placing an already traumatized kid with a family if the placement doesn’t stick.

His hope, as for others who are driving this change, is to create a paradigm shift from what used to be finding children to fit the available families, to now identifying families that fit the needs of the children.

But finding families isn’t easy. And, at the moment, there aren’t enough families for all the kids who need them, which prominently includes the CSEC kids.

“I think it is a recruitment issue,” said Heimov. “Then the recruitment challenge is compounded by the county having a reputation for not providing the support that’s promised to caregivers — and people talk.”

La County Sheriff Jim McDonnell. Photo by Celeste Fremon/WitnessLA

As a consequence, she said, potential foster parents are often reluctant to move forward with an especially complicated child if they’re not confident they’re going to get support from the county.

According to Heimov, Los Angeles County and state officials have acknowledged this urgent dilemma and are working to make changes to improve the situation.

The recruitment teams are trying new strategies with the help of organizations like Foster More, a coalition of not-for-profit organizations and foundations.

But the concept of matching the family to the youth’s needs “is new,” said Heimov, “and people have to develop confidence in it before they’re going to jump into a very challenging situation with a child.”

Rose acknowledged that having enough foster families available continues to be a challenge.

Another monkey wrench thrown into the mix, according to Heimov, is the state’s recently instituted foster care family approval process, which potential foster families and relative caregivers must now go through. “Resource Family Approval,” or RFA, as it is called, requires more training for the families and relatives, which DCFS and most juvenile advocates agree is important.

But the new procedure has also lengthened the time necessary to get approved.

Right now, said Heimov, out of 4,000 foster families and relative caregivers waiting to be approved, “as of two or three weeks ago,” only 331 had actually received approval, she said.

Scaling the Model

The county has two pilot sites where they’re doing aggressive family finding for foster care. These two cases are going well, but this is a very small portion of the entire county and it has yet to reach cross-county, Heimov said.

“LA has a long and sad history of instituting really excellent pilot programs, but when they try to roll them out countywide they aren’t fully implemented.” Thus, she said, the programs don’t work as well as they did in the pilot. “And everyone throws their hands up and wonders why. And the why is because they lose fidelity to the original model when they try to go to scale,” Heimov said.

In short, the county is using a variety of methods to address the foster family deficit, many of which show real promise according to several DCFS sources. But finding new and innovative ways to successfully recruit more foster families, as with the changeover of the group homes, takes time.

The Legal Side

Matters are further complicated by the fact that, in addition to the need for better care and stability for these children, there are also often legal hurdles for CSEC victims to deal with, which mean further challenges for those who hope to help them heal and to thrive.

“When we get the girls, we’re not only getting a victim,” said Iglesias of Children and Family Services, “we’re getting someone who’s got involvement with the criminal system. They may be testifying against their pimp,” or they may have outstanding cases themselves. This means not only legal complexities, she said, but also the possibility of additional trauma to an already traumatized young person.

“CSEC is a sexy issue right now and people want to learn about it and address it, but I think we need to slow the roll and learn how to do this intentionally and carefully in a way that benefits and helps the girls,” Iglesias said.

Yet, despite all the challenges, Iglesias and Heimov also see progress.

“It is a hard population, we’re learning as we go,” Iglesias said. “I think we’ve come a long way though.”

At least, she said, “We truly mean it when we say there’s no such thing as a child prostitute.”

SEE ALSO: “How Los Angeles County Faced its Tragic Problem with Sex-Trafficked Kids” (TCR June 1, 2017)

This story was a project of the 2016 John Jay/Tow Journalism Reporting Fellowship for The Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College. An earlier version was published this week by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange and WitnessLA. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium

The author of a new book on human trafficking tells TCR that victims can be as close as the neighborhood beauty salon or the person who knocks on your door to sell you a cheap bauble. Most of them young women in dire straits, they are easy prey in a largely invisible but spreading form of organized crime in America.

“The perfect crime, that’s what this is.”

When Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco began her research into human trafficking in America she was determined to take readers beyond the Hollywood version in which a determined hero comes to the rescue with guns blazing. “This isn’t the movie Taken,” she said.

“Liam Leeson isn’t going to show up in a black Audi to rescue his innocent victim daughter from gun-wielding Albanian mobsters.”

Instead, in her forthcoming book,  “Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium,” she makes clear the problem is both more complicated and more nuanced—and needs a number of different policy tools to deal with what she describes as a “clandestine activity, hidden within the commercial sex industry that has flourished in our country for decades.”

Mehlman-Orozco, who holds a Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Society from George Mason University, and has testified as a human trafficking expert witness, discussed her book, which will be published by Praeger/ABC-Clio this year, with TCR’s Megan Hadley.

The Crime Report: Is there a human trafficking epidemic in the country—perhaps equal to the drug epidemic?

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco: Experts say human trafficking is the fastest growing organized crime in the world. So if you’re looking at the rates of organized crime, it was the sale of drugs, sale of guns, then sale of people. But human trafficking has surpassed all as a criminal enterprise.

It’s a win-win for traffickers because they have a plausible alibi by suggesting their victims were consenting, and the penalties are very low in that case. If you’re looking at something low-risk for human enterprise, trafficking is that. Criminals see that, they know that, so they are turning to trafficking of persons as a cornerstone to committing crimes. The perfect crime, that’s what this is. There’s little liability in the court system and the monetary gain is so high that you’re having criminal enterprises taking this approach to how they fund other criminal activities.

TCR: Did you ever encounter any human trafficking victims who did not want your help or were in denial about their circumstances?

Mehlman-Orozco: We usually see victims that are manipulated to such a degree they do not see themselves as being exploited. They develop a trauma bond with the offender and it’s difficult for them to see their exploitation for what it is.

Editor’s Note: In her book, Orozco defines the trauma bond as a strong emotional attachment between the abused and abuser, which helps maintain victim compliance and inhibits the ability for successful prosecution by undermining the credibility of the victim.

Rescues usually do not happen overnight.  They occur through gaining trusting relationships. But developing trust with victims is hard. Re-victimization is very prevalent. But in the long term, every victim I have encountered hit a point where they start questioning the lies they are being told, and they will ask for help and be receptive towards receiving help.

TCR: You write in the book, “Human trafficking is a crime because people value money over human life.” Please explain.

Mehlman-Orozco: It’s a combination of money and public accolade. The current purposed legislation, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2016, is a symbolic victory for political leaders. What matters to them is that passing legislation looks good, but it will actually make the crime more clandestine.

The public won’t see advertisements as much, giving them the perception that it was a success even though there was no data to say it worked. In actuality, it will be harmful and reduce saving victims. I (argue) that if a buyer can find it, we can find it as well, and use it as catalyst for rescues and arrest. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children found that 73% of trafficking cases occur on, and they use that to say is the root cause of trafficking.

But correlation does not equal causation.We are seeing that 73% because it is the most well-known place sex is shown.

TCR: What kind of human trafficking signs (both sex trafficking and labor trafficking) should your everyday person be looking for?

Mehlman-Orozco: All of us encounter slavery in our day-to-day lives and it’s important to discern when you do encounter victims. For example, people in the service industry. If you encounter someone in the beauty industry who said they haven’t gotten paid, these things raise concerns. It could further a conversation (that can enable you to) to find out this person is in an exploitive situation. Or if you encounter a door-to-door salesperson, traveling with 15 other kids living in the same hotel room, these are red flags.

We do know that trafficking can happen in these industries. Wherever you work or whoever you are in life, try to understand the type of trafficking that you are most likely to encounter. If you work at a hotel, understand the red flags for sex trafficking. Work with management to get training from credential professionals and understand other ways in which you could intervene for the safety of yourself and the potential victim.

TCR: Given the trauma that human trafficking survivors will experience throughout their life, how can organizations help re-integrate and support survivors?

Mehlman-Orozco: First and foremost, any organization that is receiving funding to help victims needs to receive training that meets a level of standards on trauma-informed care. Right now there is no standard, and organizations can receive funds and provide services without being trained on the complex needs of the survivors.

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco

Consequently, they can provide harmful services. Other things that should be considered: There should be a third party external evaluation on their outcomes. Where are their survivors going? Are they returning to trafficking and being re-victimized? Those outcome needs to be documented and currently they are not.

One of the victims I worked with described it as swinging a baseball bat halfway… you need to follow through with care. Given the complex needs of most victims, one organization may not be the total provider. Right now there’s lots of competition for the same set of funds, so each organization wants to portray itself as an organization that can do everything.

The answer lies within partnerships and collaborations, which should receive funding over single organizations that claim they can do everything.

TCR: You write, “U.S Legislators should continue efforts to address the socioeconomic factors that contribute to the motivation of offenders and targeting of victims.” What do you believe is the underlying issue here?

Mehlman-Orozco: It’s important to look at the root cause of trafficking and understand that while we do see persons of lower socioeconomic status brought into the trafficking situation, everyone in society can be a target. We all have certain needs that need to be met, and this is how traffickers trap their victims. First, we are searching for food, shelter, water, and safety. After safety we are seeking love, belonging and esteem, and that is what a trafficker is likely to fulfill.

You see a lot of faux relationships being used and traffickers provide those needs temporarily to control their victims. That’s a key piece.

TCR: What is the difference between a consenting sex worker and a sex victim?

Mehlman-Orozco: Often, a victim of sex trafficking is mistaken for a consenting sex worker. They look exactly identical. But in the way we handle each crime, they are supposed to be helped. Yet consenting sex workers are treated as criminals. That’s why we see police criminalizing victims of trafficking. Consenting sex workers have been victimized at some point in their lives, or they are victimized during the course of their sex work. Consenting sex workers will say, ‘I am doing this in order to survive and feed my family, and the alternative is homelessness and not being able to live sustainably.'”

I advocate for de-criminalization, not legalization. I don’t want sex trade to be legal, but we shouldn’t go after sex workers, who are highly likely to have been victimized. By doing that, we empower victims to come forward to law enforcement and admit it instead of hiding in the shadows and being fearful. The better approach is to discern whether they are victims or not.

Not arrest them, but get them into other systems so they can see they can live a sustainable life without the sex industry.

Megan Hadley

TCR: In the book you describe police officers blatantly ignoring sex workers, who may also be victims. Why are police turning a blind eye to this problem?

Mehlman-Orozco: The police make short-term arrests that don’t lead to a conviction and they become jaded and frustrated towards the criminal justice process. It takes a lot of work to take someone out of a trafficked situation and get them to successfully testify against their traffickers. It’s very rare. There is also a misconception that all the women are consenting. It’s the assumption that everyone there is not in chains and doesn’t look distraught, so police officers take it at face value.

Megan Hadley is a news intern with The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.


Why the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act is the Wrong Solution

A bill pending in Congress to make websites liable for publishing information that facilitates sex trafficking doesn’t address the real issues at stake—and may do more harm than good, writes a trafficking expert.

Last month, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that would make websites liable for publishing information that facilitates sex trafficking.

The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act has since become the center of a stormy debate between those who believe this measure will curb a practice that exploits thousands of young women every year, and tech industry giants like Google and their supporters who argue that it threatens free speech.

But the fundamental problem with the bill, sponsored by Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), is that it doesn’t address the real issues at stake —and in fact may do more harm than good.

The measure is not based on any theoretical or empirical research; nor does it reflect an authoritative understanding of the scope and history of how commercial sex and sex trafficking are sold in the United States.

Editors’ Note: A vote on the bill was scheduled as early as this week.

Proponents of the bill make two critically flawed assumptions:

  • Certain websites make it easier to sex traffic than others, instead of the internet as a whole;
  • Website administrators can accurately discern the difference between a law- abiding business, a consenting adult sex worker, and a victim of sex trafficking—something that trained law enforcement have trouble doing.

Legislators, their constituents and anti-trafficking advocates should first understand the history and landscape of commercial sex advertisements before they rush to pass this bill.

Periodicals have been used to disseminate information about the commercial sex trade for centuries. Between 1757 and 1795 Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies—a concise almanac of prostitutes available for hire in London—was published annually and disseminated to middle and upper class men.

Harris’s descriptions suggest that many of the sex workers were actually trafficked adults or juveniles.

Between the late 1800s and early 1900s, Blue Books containing brothel advertisements and a directory of sex workers were given to visitors and tourists and those seeking a “good time” while in New Orleans, Louisiana and San Antonio, Texas.

By the mid- to late-20th century, conventional newspapers and specialty erotic magazines, like Swank in New York, were used to share information about the commercial sex trade locally, by various publishers across the country.

These ads eventually transitioned online with the popularization of the internet.

Despite the claims by some legislators and anti trafficking advocates, who typically are narrowly focused on classified advertisement websites like and, one particular website did not facilitate sex trafficking.

There are literally thousands of websites that specifically cater to the commercial sex industry. Here’s a partial list:,,,,,, and

Many are hosted internationally, possibly beyond the reach of U.S.-based law enforcement, such as,, and, or on the dark web.

Advertisements hosted on one website are often cross-posted on other forums, social media, dating websites and even in print.

For example, a recent edition of Korean Entertainment Weekly (a free publication for Korean residents in the D.C. Metropolitan Area) features prominent ads for massage parlors that are also advertised on

Ultimately, it is often very difficult to discern legitimate businesses from consenting adult sex industries, and sex trafficked victims.

Sen. Blumenthal, especially, should know this, considering that there is documented evidence suggesting that police in his state, Connecticut, erroneously criminalized at least one victim of sex trafficking. The victim had been trafficked on and off for nearly two decades, but was arrested by the police when she reported her sex trafficker/pimp.

For years, bipartisan anti-trafficking legislators like Portman and Blumenthal were on a crusade to get well-known classified advertisement websites to shutter their “erotic” or “adult” sections.

When acquiesced to that request in 2010, the ads were simply displaced, some to the casual encounters dating section of the same website and many to When also shuttered its adult section earlier this year, the ads were again displaced to the dating section.

Eradicating these commercial sex ads completely is a Sisyphean task.

Third-party businesses should not be held accountable for the crimes committed by traffickers. Instead of avoiding hard decisions for cheap headlines, legislators should start facilitating cooperation between these websites and law enforcement.

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco

In order to combat the historically clandestine crime of sex trafficking, we must increase the capabilities of law enforcement to use online ads as the catalyst for more arrests and rescues.

Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and her book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium,” will be published by Praeger/ABC-Clio this year. Dr. Mehlman-Orozco’s writing can be found in The Washington PostThe Houston ChronicleThe Baltimore SunThe Diplomatic Courier, among other media.


Sex Trafficking: A Surprising Rescue Story

A researcher uses to identify a potential victim and get police help. The lesson, she writes, is that commercial sex trafficking sites are increasingly useful tools for law enforcement—and outlawing them is counterproductive.

Over the last few weeks, anti-trafficking advocates, partisan opponents and the media have been blasting politicians who accepted donations from the online classified advertisement site,

To a large segment of the American population, the website is nothing more than “the world’s top online brothel” and “the Walmart of sex trafficking.”

However, this opinion does not facilitate the rescue of victims and prosecution of sex traffickers.

In fact, not only actively cooperates with law enforcement, but is a critical tool for investigation.

For example, on April 24th I identified a potential case of sex trafficking through online commercial sex advertisement and review forums. At the time, I was cross-referencing quotes from commercial sex consumers online for my forthcoming book, Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium.

The book—an effort to take readers behind the headlines of the human trafficking scourge in America—features direct quotes from convicted human traffickers, victims, sex workers, and commercial sex consumers (who refer to themselves as “mongers” or “hobbyists”).

At approximately 9:30pm, I came across a advertisement for a young woman in the Winston-Salem area of North Carolina that read:

“Hey baby I’m PANDORA come give me a call see what in my box and come on show me some love or what ever u like baby I even do massage too with nice touch to unwind from hard day work I rub u down with the magic touch come on down give PANDORA a call.”

Prima facie, this young woman, who claimed to be 25, may have been perceived as a consenting sex worker. However, reviews about her—which were posted on, a commercial sex review forum—told a different story.

Men on the website provided information that suggested the young woman was being trafficked.

On March 31, one man wrote:

“This girl has a developmental disability and is being used by her mother. Even mongers, need to draw a line somewhere. It can be argued that her disability means she doesn’t really know what she is consenting to. This is not like a woman who has demons (that) she should have known better to avoid. This is someone who is fully being abused by a parent.”

Upon seeing this review and the accompanying advertisement, I took a break from editing my book and immediately alerted the Winston-Salem and Thomasville police. Since the advertisement didn’t include a specific address, the police officers I spoke with weren’t sure which jurisdiction the case fell under.

I was uncertain whether the information from the websites was reliable, but on the off-chance it was, I wanted to report it to the police.

After notifying law enforcement, I took screenshots of the advertisements and reviews for evidence, and alerted administrators as well. Within minutes, the advertisements for this girl were removed from their website.

Less than two hours later, by approximately 11:30pm, the police had conducted an undercover sting at a hotel and had the girl from the advertisements in custody. One of the officers confirmed  to me that the woman appeared to suffer from a developmental disability, but explained they needed to conduct further investigation to determine if and how she was being exploited.

The officers told me that they would try to connect the woman with social services and thanked me for bringing the information to their attention.

This is why my anti-trafficking advocacy doesn’t conflict with my support of cooperative policing with websites like Although people can use classified advertisement forums to publicize marginalized women and children who may be sex-trafficked, these websites are also the catalyst for rescues and investigations across the United States.

They have been for years.

The movement of the commercial sex industry off the streets and online brought the previously clandestine crime of sex trafficking into the open. However, although ads initiate a large proportion of child sex-trafficking identifications and victim recoveries, the website continues to be publicly vilified through arrests and civil lawsuits, as well as by public shaming of supporters and politicians who receive donations from them.

Criminalizing will not reduce the commercial sex industry. If anything, it will simply displace commercial sex advertisements from to other websites, such as­–Your Local Escort Directory.

It’s like playing a game of Whack-a-Mole.

Instead of continuing to criminalize these websites and hold them liable for the actions of third parties, anti-trafficking advocates, law enforcement, and victim service providers should identify mechanisms to facilitate more information sharing and cooperation.

Internet-based commercial sex advertisement and review websites are undeniably contributing to the knowledge base of researchers and law enforcement, and we should facilitate–not stymie–this information-sharing.

In less than two hours, the aforementioned advertisement allowed me­—a Washington D.C. based criminologist—to initiate an investigation, which brought a potential victim into custody over 300 miles away. This is one out of hundreds of examples of how the website has been used as an effective tool.

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco

America needs to start focusing our anti-trafficking efforts toward policies and interventions that have measurable impacts, instead of blaming scapegoats and avoiding hard decisions just to collect  cheap headlines.

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and her book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium,” will be published by Praeger/ABC-Clio this year. She welcomes comments from readers.