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.


Stop Treating Sex Workers, Trafficking Victims as Criminals: Study

Police and the courts need to dramatically change the way they deal with prostitution, beginning with treating sex workers and trafficking victims as individuals who need counseling and help to remake their lives— rather than as criminals—said an Urban Institute report released today.

Police and the courts need to dramatically change the way they deal with prostitution, beginning with treating sex workers and trafficking victims as individuals who need counseling and help to remake their lives— rather than as criminals—said an Urban Institute report released today. “The criminalization of prostitution and, more generally, negative interactions with the police discourage the reporting of, and therefore investigation of and response to, violence and exploitation,” declared the report, entitled “Consequences of Policing Prostitution.” The report’s authors studied 1,413 prostitution-related cases in New York City between February 2015 and March 2016. The study used data from the Exploitation Intervention Project (EIP) operated by The Legal Aid Society in New York, as well as interviews with EIP clients. In many of the cases, the clients  reported being subjected to verbal abuse, racial profiling and even propositioning by police officers. A 44-year-old black female, for example, reported being paraded with handcuffs in front of officers after she was arrested:  “It was like a show…., They were laughing and it was fun, it was fun for them, it was a good night.” Some 84% of the EIP’s clients analyzed for the study were individuals of color, and many had histories of being sexually abused.  More than one-third had been or were currently being trafficked. Criminalizing prostitution impedes an individual’s chances to find housing or gainful employment that would enable them to find alternatives, the study said. The treatment of sex trafficking victims in particular was criticized by the authors,  Meredith Dank of John Jay College of Criminal Justice;  and Jennifer Yahner and Lily Yu of the Urban Institute. “Entrenching anti-trafficking efforts in the policing of prostitution is harmful,” they wrote, noting that trafficking victims are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and should be provided with counseling rather than putting them in handcuffs. “Trafficking prevention…necessarily starts with economic and gender justice and involves preventing homelessness, family violence, child abuse, and all sexual abuse and assault.” The study, one of the first to systematically examine the backgrounds and outcomes of people criminalized for prostitution within a single jurisdiction, was assisted by Kate Mogulescu and Katie Beth White of The Legal Aid Society of New York. Although it recommended that authorities de-criminalize prostitution, it also suggested initial steps that courts and police could take to that would have the same effect:
  • Police could cease arresting people for prostitution or send individuals to court-based prostitution diversion programs, where their charges could be dismissed with the help of criminal defense attorney as “if they never happened, so participants can immediately move forward unburdened by negative consequences of an arrest or conviction record.”
  • Judges should be careful not to “impose further stigma, embarrassment, or danger on those facing criminal charges on prostitution offenses through language, comments, or imposing assumptions or judgment.”
In one ominous note suggesting a growing problem in New York City, the study also found that the number of Asian individuals arrested in connection with  both unlicensed massage and prostitution charges increased by over 2,700 percent between 2012 and 2016—from 12 to 36 cases. The report is available here. This summary was prepared by TCR intern Davi Hernandez