New Probe Into Jeffrey Epstein Plea Deal

Epstein could have faced a possible life sentence for sex trafficking, but instead was secretly granted federal immunity, along with others who were part of the conspiracy.

The Department of Justice has opened an investigation into Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta’s role in negotiating a controversial plea deal with a wealthy New York investor accused of molesting more than 100 underage girls in Palm Beach, The Miami Herald reports. The probe is in response to a request by Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who was critical of the case following a series of stories in the Miami Herald. The Herald articles detailed how Acosta, then the U.S. attorney for Southern Florida, and other DOJ attorneys worked hand-in-hand with defense lawyers to cut a lenient plea deal with multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein in 2008.

Epstein, 66, could have faced a possible life sentence for sex trafficking, but instead was secretly granted federal immunity, along with others who were part of the conspiracy, some of whom were named, others not. Epstein was suspected by the FBI of running an international sex trafficking operation involving minors, and federal prosecutors had drafted a 53-page indictment that was shelved after Acosta signed off on a non-prosecution agreement in September 2007. For months after the deal was executed, federal prosecutors kept Epstein’s victims in the dark, and the FBI led some of them to believe the investigation was ongoing. Most of the girls, ages 13 to 16 at the time, found out about the plea bargain only after learning about it on television when Epstein was sentenced in June 2008.


Human and Sex Trafficking Vastly ‘Under-Reported’ in the US

The FBI found nearly 1,000 cases of commercial sex crime in the U.S. last year, but experts believe the actual number is much higher, based on victim reports to medical and social service agencies.

Congress asked the FBI to report annually on the number of human trafficking cases in the U.S. a decade ago, but the crime continues to be vastly under-reported, the American Society of Criminology was told Thursday.

In recently released data for 2017, the FBI found 994 commercial sex crime cases around the nation, but that is likely only a small fraction of the actual number, said criminologist Amy Farrell of Northeastern University.

Farrell studied three U.S. cities in the northeast, south and west and found indications of hundreds, if not thousands, of cases reported to medical and social service agencies, compared with the cities’ official count of about 600 cases.

The situation is similar to that involving hate crimes, in which experts say there are many more than are reflected in the FBI’s annual count, which was issued this week.

The International Labour Organization estimated that on any given day in 2016 there were more than 40 million victims of “modern slavery” worldwide, but it never has been very clear how many of these cases occur in the U.S., Farrell said, noting that many cases with a trafficking element end up being classified by police as simply prostitution crimes.

Last year, the FBI said state and local law enforcement agencies made more than 36,000 arrests in “prostitution and commercial vice” cases. When federal authorities get involved in human trafficking, the numbers aren’t very high.

In the seven years between 2006 and 2013, there were 4,030 such federal cases, Ryan Kling of Abt Associates told the criminologists. Of those cases, more than 90 percent led to convictions and the average prison term was more than 12 years.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report.


Cheap Motels, Highways and Poverty Facilitate Sex Trafficking: Study

Sex traffickers prey on poor and urban neighborhoods near highways and cheap motels, according to researchers at Texas State University, who examined “clusters’ of trafficking arrests in Austin. The researchers say their findings support criminologists’ theories that the presence of a particular crime may depend on the physical make up of a community.

Sex traffickers—those who recruit, transport and sexually exploit others through force or coercion—prey on poor and urban neighborhoods near highways and cheap motels, according to researchers at Texas State University.

In a study published in the Journal for Criminal Justice, researchers Deborah Mletzko, Lucia Summers and Ashley N. Arnio found Austin, Texas’ “hottest cluster” of sex trafficking offenses in the north end of the city, where a major interstate highway intersects two other major roads and is adjacent to a street known for prostitution solicitation.

This cluster is just one of many sex trafficking hot spots in similar areas across the city, according to the researchers who examined reported sex trafficking offenses in more than 500 areas in Austin between 2013-2015.

The researchers argue that perpetrators target these areas for practical reasons: for example, access to highways makes it easier to recruit and transport victims, and cheap motels offer a secure place to harbor victims and broker sex transactions.

Not clear, however, is the offense’s connection to poverty. Other potential predictors of sex trafficking examined—residential instability, proximity to a local truck stop, and racial and ethnic heterogeneity—had no significant impact.

The findings suggest two implications: First, they support a commonly held theory among criminologists that the presence of a particular crime may depend upon the physical makeup of a community. And second, the understanding of this factor can “inform intervention efforts by law enforcement and other agencies aimed at disrupting the underlying support structure of sex trafficking,” the authors write.

Human trafficking—responsible for the forced labor of approximately 20 million people globally—remains one of the most pervasive organized criminal activities in the world, according to the FBI, which assembled at least three task forces to combat human trafficking. Just before the new year, President Donald Trump officially declared January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

Austin Texas—the state’s fourth most populous city with an estimated population of nearly 950,00—is a suitable site for the study because of its proximity to the Mexican border and its positioning within the so-called Texas Triangle, according to the authors.

A copy of the study may be downloaded here.

J. Gabriel Ware is a news intern for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Cheap Motels, Highways and Poverty Facilitate Sex Trafficking: Study

Sex traffickers prey on poor and urban neighborhoods near highways and cheap motels, according to researchers at Texas State University, who examined “clusters” of trafficking arrests in Austin. The researchers say their findings support criminologists’ theories that the presence of a particular crime may depend on the physical makeup of a community.

Sex traffickers—those who recruit, transport and sexually exploit others through force or coercion—prey on poor and urban neighborhoods near highways and cheap motels, according to researchers at Texas State University.

In a study published in the Journal for Criminal Justice, researchers Deborah Mletzko, Lucia Summers and Ashley N. Arnio found Austin, Texas’ “hottest cluster” of sex trafficking offenses in the north end of the city, where a major interstate highway intersects two other major roads and is adjacent to a street known for prostitution solicitation.

This cluster is just one of many sex trafficking hot spots in similar areas across the city, according to the researchers who examined reported sex trafficking offenses in more than 500 areas in Austin between 2013-2015.

The researchers argue that perpetrators target these areas for practical reasons: for example, access to highways makes it easier to recruit and transport victims, and cheap motels offer a secure place to harbor victims and broker sex transactions.

Not clear, however, is the offense’s connection to poverty. Other potential predictors of sex trafficking examined—residential instability, proximity to a local truck stop, and racial and ethnic heterogeneity—had no significant impact.

The findings suggest two implications: First, they support a commonly held theory among criminologists that the presence of a particular crime may depend upon the physical makeup of a community. And second, the understanding of this factor can “inform intervention efforts by law enforcement and other agencies aimed at disrupting the underlying support structure of sex trafficking,” the authors write.

Human trafficking—responsible for the forced labor of approximately 20 million people globally—remains one of the most pervasive organized criminal activities in the world, according to the FBI, which assembled at least three task forces to combat human trafficking. Just before the new year, President Donald Trump officially declared January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

Austin Texas—the state’s fourth most populous city with an estimated population of nearly 950,00—is a suitable site for the study because of its proximity to the Mexican border and its positioning within the so-called Texas Triangle, according to the authors.

A copy of the study may be downloaded here.

J. Gabriel Ware is a news intern for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Sex Trafficking: Can Private Investigators Fill Gaps Left By Police?

In Part Two of our investigation of America’s sex trafficking crisis, TCR finds a burgeoning “niche” industry of private nonprofit groups—many comprised of ex-cops or military operatives—who operate outside law enforcement. One former FBI agent maintains that if such groups didn’t exist, the picture would be a lot grimmer.

“Hey baby, where are you at?”

John Rode, a 62-year-old private investigator, answers the phone while driving down the Florida coast with the breezy response he perfected working as a Miami Vice officer for 24 years.

private investigators

On the road: Former lawmen John Rode (L) and Justin Payton use their car as the nerve center for their sex-trafficking investigations in Florida. Photo by Megan Hadley.

But he doesn’t answer as “John.” He gives his name as “Rick”—one of the pseudonyms he uses when he responds to an ad for sex. A prostitute is on the other end of the line, and Rode is pretending to be a potential client.

It’s one of the tried-and-true techniques that Rode and his partner, Justin Payton, 38, a former U.S. Marshal, use in their search for sex trafficking victims, who can be mistaken for consenting prostitutes, in Florida.

The two find the women on sex-for-sale websites that opened up when was shut down by the federal government last Spring. Their casual approach usually produces an address from the prostitute, and they spring into action. When Rode hangs up the phone, he and Payton head to the location.

Rode, wearing a small, hidden bluetooth camera, goes inside while Payton waits outside the door. Payton confided that his presence provides needed backup just in case a pimp is nearby and getting suspicious—but the two investigators have not encountered a violent situation in the year they have been operating.

private investigator

Justin Payton (in foreground) watches as his partner checks out a motel room which was advertised in a sex site. Photo from Jack Hadley video.

Inside, after talking with the woman, Rode has to make a quick judgment about whether or not she is being held against her will (which would make her a victim, rather than a prostitute, under Florida law.) He credits this quick judgment to a “gut feeling” that he developed working in law enforcement.

After the conversation is over, he tells her he forgot to bring cash, walks out, and if he thinks she’s in danger he makes a call on his cell phone to police so they can further investigate.

If the woman is recovered by authorities, Rode and Payton can chalk up a small victory in their battle against the seamy underworld players who have driven south Florida’s growing sex trafficking crisis.

This is a typical afternoon for Rode and Payton, who work from their cars rather than behind a desk— in fact, the two don’t have an office, and work from their phones. We drove down I-95, a popular highway for transporting sex trafficking victims, in an undercover operation in pursuit of pimps and underage girls.

private investigators

John Rode (L) worked as a Miami Vice Squad detective. His partner Justin Payton is a former U.S. Marshal. Photo courtesy Global Children’s Rescue.

Rode uses a fake phone number on an app called “burner” to hide his identity. And, they switch rental cars frequently to avoid being followed.

When Rode and Payton aren’t patrolling the internet for underage or exploited women, they’re working individual missing-children cases. According to Rode, the two go hand-in-hand, because missing children often become victims of sex trafficking within the first 48 hours that they disappear.

However, most of the “missing” children are actually runaway cases, rather than actual kidnappings.

The two private investigators are co-founders of Global Children’s Rescue (GCR), a small non-profit based in Fort Lauderdale whose clients are usually the families of runaway girls. They are fully funded by fundraisers, private donors and businesses.

They use their law enforcement training and street experience to look for clues to the girls’ whereabouts—in bars, runaway shelters, hotels or brothels—often stepping in when desperate families say that local police have given up, or never took the case seriously in the first place.

But they are not the only ones.

In Part Two of an investigation of human trafficking, The Crime Report found what amounts to a niche industry of non-profit organizations comprised of former law enforcement operatives which have sprung up in Florida and across the county in response to the sex trafficking crisis that many say has outpaced the ability of local police to cope.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In Part One of our three-part investigation, The Crime Report spoke to the mothers of three young girls who were trafficking victims in Florida, and one victim herself, all of whom claimed they received little or no help from local law enforcement.

Roots of the Trafficking Crisis

According to Payton, Florida’s sex-trafficking trade has flourished in part because of the lack of sufficient police personnel to address it, and in part because of the lack of appropriate policies or guidelines in local police agencies that could help law enforcement identify and assist trafficking victims.

“To be honest, every department can’t run around looking at every case and put up helicopters looking for missing kids,” Payton told TCR. “It’s not (for lack of interest) by the officers, or even by the chief of police. It’s the way the system is set up.”

GCR’s Rode and Payton believe they fill a critical gap in the battle against traffickers.

Since they began operating last year, the investigators devote a large portion of their time to finding children whose parents or caregivers report as missing or runaways—situations which often lead them to sex-trafficking operations. Of the 30 missing-children cases they have worked to date, they claim to have found about 25 kids. Some cases are closed when a runaway returns home on her own, but others have led Rode and Payton to young girls who have been recruited by traffickers.

John Rode

John Rode credits GCR’s success in finding trafficking victims to its “quick response” to reports of missing kids. Photo from Hadley Videos.

They credit their success to their ability to step in quickly as soon as they hear a child is missing—pointing out that such a quick response is crucial before the victim is swept up in the shadowy sex-for-sale underground, and disappears.

One of the techniques that works for them is their ability to “saturate” an area, which can scare the runaway child into coming forward.

“We’re effective just by being out there,” said Payton. “We’re dealing with family. Talking to business owners. Talking to Uber drivers. Bartenders. You name it. We put the pressure on, and that gives us hope that this system could work.”

Non-Profit Rescuers

As it turns out, they aren’t alone. In a month-long investigation, TCR found at least five anti-trafficking organizations in Florida and elsewhere in the country (including Global Children’s Rescue), similarly staffed by former law enforcement or military personnel—and it is by no means an exhaustive list. Our sources suggest others are moving into the field.

They include the following:

  • Global Children’s Rescue (Fort Lauderdale, Fl.)
  • Phantom Rescue (Hollywood, Fl.)
  • Saved in America (Southern California)
  • Operation Underground Railroad (Anaheim, Ca.)
  • Human Trafficking Investigations and Training Institute (Washington, D.C.)

Phantom Rescue, a non-profit based in Hollywood, Fl., staffed by former special operations military officers, helps local authorities rescue children who have been bought, sold and traded for sex.

This group specializes in patrolling the “Dark Web”—an area of cyberspace that has flourished as the home for illicit dealers in everything from drugs and guns to sex. Increasingly, it has become an underground place where children can be bought and sold.

And the tools used to find them are just as secretive.

“We do not disclose any information on the information on the recovery of a missing child,” Tony Sparks, the founder and director, told TCR.

“Your readers could potentially be anyone, even human traffickers.”

Sparks, a former military special operations officer, claims that trained ex-law enforcement professionals are among the most effective operatives in the world of human trafficking.

phantom rescue

Phantom Rescue’s website–one of five nonprofit groups claiming to rescue trafficking vicitims.

Free to operate outside the restrains of police bureaucracy, Phantom Rescue (like GCR) claims its operatives can often spend time and resources that financially strapped police agencies do not have.

Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.) is even more explicit, claiming on its website that its worldwide activities “enhance” law enforcement when budget shortfalls otherwise prevent authorities from aggressively pursuing “child pornography, child exploitation or human trafficking operation.”

In its four years of operation, O.U.R. claims to have rescued 1,500 children and assisted in the arrest of 570 traffickers.

Other organizations claim similar success.

For example, Saved in America, a non-profit located in California which numbers ex-law enforcement agents as well as former Navy Seals among its operatives, claims to have rescued 82 children since 2014.

According to its website, Saved in America deploys four teams of special ops, five retired police investigators, 16 retired special operators, two social networking investigators, and two state firearms instructors.

But are they really necessary?

According to former FBI agent Greg Bristol, they are. Bristol maintains that if the groups now operating outside law enforcement didn’t exist, the picture would be a lot grimmer.

Bristol recalled that when he left the FBI in Washington, D.C, he was the only one working human trafficking cases.

“Police departments have resources,” said Bristol, who now runs the Human Trafficking & Investigations Training Institute. “They’re just choosing not to use them.”

Bristol’s organization develops human trafficking awareness and investigative training programs for former law enforcement agencies across the country. His courses focus on helping officers detect the telltale signs of human trafficking through skillful interviews of victims—much like the techniques Rode and Payton use.

But he argues police have always been a step behind traffickers.

Most police departments, he contended, seem too often more interested in training their officers about radar guns then educating them on sex trafficking.

“If they need to get an officer certified on a radar gun, they’ll spend five days to do it,” he said in an interview. “But certifying them to be human trafficking investigators… they aren’t doing it.”

Some states are more progressive than others in addressing the problem, Bristol said, adding that Florida is not one of them.

Payton and Rode would agree.

Butting Heads

The two private investigators say they regularly butt heads with law enforcement agencies in their area (they cite Fort Lauderdale as one example), claiming that local cops are often reluctant to follow up on leads they provide about underage or endangered young women.

The Crime Report contacted the Fort Lauderdale police department and invited them to comment on Rode and Payton’s claims.

In an email statement prepared for TCR, detective Tracy Figone responded that the department is “open” to working with outside organizations “to enhance our resources for Missing Children / Human Trafficking investigations.”

“Fort Lauderdale Detectives investigating this type of incident will accept any information provided by an individual or outside organization, but will not provide specific details on an active investigation to non-law enforcement entities, [since] this may interfere with their investigation.”

They did not, however, respond to TCR’s questions about the specific allegations by Rode and Payton about how police handle such investigations.

Global Children’s Rescue and other groups argue that trafficking investigations led by law-enforcement could benefit from the street knowledge and fast-response strategy employed by experienced private investigators and other former law enforcement operatives.

Private investigators also don’t face the same red tape that police officers do.

Jessica Vera, founder of ELITE Foundation, a non-profit combating human trafficking in Fort Lauderdale, explained that if a PI wants to bust down the door, he can.

“They don’t have the same constraints as law enforcement,” she said. “They don’t have judicial process and so forth, so they can find out a lot more and pass information to law enforcement.”

miami beach

Observers predict that south Florida will become the country’s number-one hot spot for sex trafficking in2020 when Miami hosts the Super Bowl. Photo from Hadley Videos.

Vera, predicting that Florida will be the number-one sex trafficking hotspot in 2020, when Miami hosts the Super Bowl, said Florida needs a lot more trained personnel like Rode and Payton to fight the crisis.

“I was impressed Rode and Payton have taken on this uphill battle,” she said, adding that law enforcement could benefit from their help. “They need an army.”

Rode’s persistence and instincts, honed during his years as a veteran cop, have been critical to his success in rescuing young girls from traffickers.

backpage was shut down by the Feds last Spring. Photo by edkohler via Flickr

In the summer of 2016, a man posted a sex-for-sale advertisement on offering the services of a 19-year-old girl (who was actually 17 at the time), and advertising her availability at a major hotel in Plantation, Fl.

Young, and Frightened

Rode found the ad online and, in accordance with his technique, showed up at the hotel room he was given, wearing his hidden Bluetooth camera, and posing as a paying customer. It didn’t take him long to register how young the girl was, along with the scared look on her face.

It was also clear that she wasn’t “working” for herself. An older man waited outside the elevator, watching the room.

After leaving with his standard apologies of having no cash, he called detectives whom he knew at the Plantation police department. At first, they were reluctant to come out, Rode said—but when they did, detectives discovered the girl had been raped by eight different men who had paid the older man for her “services.” The man was arrested.

The City of Plantation Police Department did not respond to The Crime Report’s request for a comment.

According to a subsequent police report of the case, reported by the local ABC news affiliate, the girl screamed for help at one point and said she was prepared to jump out of the fourth-floor window in an attempt to escape.

The man, who was charged with human trafficking and sexual battery of a minor, is currently in jail awaiting trial—scheduled in September.

Rode claims that if he had not insisted that detectives come to the scene, the young girl might not have been rescued.

Not everyone, however, buys their argument.

Tony Sparks of Phantom Rescue said he was “shocked” at the claim by Rode and Payton that they received a cold shoulder from local law enforcement.

“They probably just haven’t established themselves yet,” he said. “Law enforcement wants our help.”

Opinions remain divided however about how law enforcement responds to outside help.

Jumorrow Terra Johnson, president of the non-profit Broward (County) Human Trafficking Coalition, said that while her organization has great relations with the Fort Lauderdale police department, officers’ mentality about human trafficking needs to change.

She told TCR she believes the Fort Lauderdale police are “making strides” in this area, but she added law enforcement often views trafficking victims through a narrow lens, noting that police often have misleading preconceptions of what a trafficking victim “looks like.”

“You can’t distinguish between good victims and bad victims,” she said, noting that the trauma experienced by trafficked girls sometimes leads them to conceal what they have gone through—and thus lead officers to think they have been willing participants.

“When you don’t know what it is and you’re not interested in learning what a victim might look like, you can punish a victim for being trafficked.”

Johnson’s organization is one of many human trafficking coalitions established in Florida. Now, there is one for almost every county in the state.

Florida also developed the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking, created by state Attorney General Pam Bondi in 2014, which comprises law enforcement officers, prosecutors, legislators, as well as experts in the fields of health, education and social services.

The council, whose responsibilities range from recommending enhanced coordination between prosecutors and law enforcement in apprehending traffickers, to developing safe houses and safe foster homes for victims, is one of many state-sponsored organizations in Florida that have emerged to cope with Florida’s trafficking crisis.

But according to Rode, these official responses still fall short of what’s needed.

The different coalitions and task forces “don’t get involved in cases unless it’s a high profile actual abduction or kidnapping,” he claimed. “They don’t go out and deal with the families. They don’t deal with every runaway girl who has the potential of being a human trafficking victim.”

“I wish they would.”

Sex Workers are Skeptical

The methods of private investigators have also come under fire from the sex-worker community.

Turning over sex trafficking victims to the police can often do more harm than good, according to Terra 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.

Burns argued that when Payton and Rode alert law enforcement to trafficking victims, many end up facing criminal charges for prostitution.

She explained that sex trafficking laws are often used against victims, who can be charged with something like “aiding or facilitating their own prostitution” or “conspiracy to traffic themselves.”

“Generally, it would not be helpful for them (Rode and Payton) to turn victims over to the police,” said Burns.

Christa Daring, Executive Director of  SWOP USA , a sex-worker advocacy group, agreed.

“These young girls can be trafficking victims and still charged with illegal prostitution. In most situations, police are trying to get their arrest stats up, and picking people up for prostitution is an easy way to do that,” she said.

Especially trans people and people of color, she added.

According to Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, author of Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium, the emergence of private investigators in the sex trafficking industry only underlines the failure of law enforcement and other authorities to take the problem seriously enough to develop ways to prevent trafficking in the first place.

GCR and similar organizations shouldn’t be necessary, she told TCR.

“My preference is for law enforcement to be trained and given resources on how to effectively rescue victims and follow them through to conviction,” she said.

“If they are receiving information and not acting on it, I would rather find ways to hold law enforcement accountable.”

Payton and Rode don’t necessarily disagree, but they argue that in the absence of systematic approaches to the problem, organizations like theirs are needed to provide 24/7 assistance to victims and their families.

Megan Hadley

Megan Hadley

But in a perfect world, this crime wouldn’t exist, and nobody would become a victim, Rode said.

“Unfortunately we live in a very dangerous society where people become victims. And it’s not going to stop. And we’re not going to stop either.”

“We never stop searching.”

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


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.