Even when information about online trafficking victims is brought to the attention of law enforcement, they can still be treated as “disposable people” by the system meant to protect them, says a trafficking expert.
Child sex trafficking is a clandestine crime that has increasingly moved off the streets and online over the last decade. However, even when information about these crimes is brought to the attention of law enforcement, victims can still be treated as “disposable people” by the system meant to protect them.
In recent years, law enforcement has become more aware of how social media is used by sex traffickers to target, groom, and recruit victims. Stories about sex trafficking through Facebook and Instagram, dating websites like OkCupid and Tinder, and apps like Kik messenger and SnapChat are becoming increasingly common.
However, as the following story suggests, there is little awareness of how these social media platforms can be used to identify victims, much less what happens to these victims post- “rescue.”
On May 29, 2017, Sandra Sparks, Executive Director of ERASE Child Trafficking, was tagged in an anonymous tip on her organization’s Facebook page about an “underage runaway” in Louisiana who was seen having sex with an “old man” in his truck. She was linked to the girl’s social media account.
“PLEASE alert authorities,” a subsequent post appealed. “There is an underage runaway being trafficked.”
After visiting the social media account, Sparks discovered that the 16-year-old girl, whom I will refer to by the pseudonym “Princess,” had been trafficked for months, despite being previously rescued and returned to her family.
The girl’s social media account, which chronicles her life being trafficked, ballooned with over 60,000 followers in a little over a month.
She told them in one post:
If it wasn’t for u guys I’d b dead I’m not even suicidal anymore.
When they weren’t looking, “Princess” took pictures and videos of her traffickers and posted them for her followers to see. She wrote:
If my pimp saw my page he would literally grab his pistol and shot (sic) me… I do it in secret.
She claims that one of the men pimping her is wanted for gun offenses, and another has multiple warrants out for his arrest. In one of her pictures, “Princess” is shown holding an AK-47 and in several others she appears to be snapping images as the traffickers physically abuse her.
She captioned one image, “Pray for me.”
“Princess” also secretly takes pictures of the men who pay for sex with her. One of them is a truck driver who she calls “Santa.” The old, white, man has a long white beard and white hair, with an oversized frame. There are several pictures of “Princess” in a black bra lying next to a shirtless “Santa.”
She claims that he gave her $100 after their sexual encounter, but her pimp took the money away.
Another one of the men who pays for sex with “Princess,” she nicknamed “Bill Cosby” because of his resemblance. The man, who is also a truck driver, is shown on video asking “Princess” for directions to a motel room. Later, she posted pictures and video of the same man laying on a motel bed, rolling and smoking a joint.
In many of the videos “Princess” appears to be happy and smiling, despite living in a roach-infested room and sleeping on a mattress with no sheets or on a towel on a bathroom floor. She is told to have sex with multiple older men per night, while her pimps collect the money.
But she claims there is nowhere for her to escape to.
In one of her videos, she said:
A lot of people are telling me that I should just leave this situation. A lot of people don’t realize I don’t really have a choice, because I ain’t got nowhere else to stay. So if I get up and I leave right now and say, ‘I ain’t coming back, I’m not working for you,’ I won’t have nowhere to sleep and ya’ll don’t understand that.”
“Princess” told her followers that her mom died when she was only 13 years old and her life has been hell ever since. She also reveals that her dad is a pastor in New Orleans.
Some of the videos are extremely sexually explicit, taken mid-coitus with the men raping her for money. The posts prompt mixed reactions from her followers. Some encourage her to continue the pornographic exploits, while others urge her to find a pimp to take better care of her by feeding her properly, as well as providing her with clothes that fit and an appropriate residence.
Some try to convince her to go back home or to a homeless shelter, so that she can leave the sexual exploitation she is facing.
Upon learning of this sex-trafficking situation, Sandra Sparks immediately alerted both state and federal law enforcement. However, the girl’s social media posts continue.
Although some agencies are trying to use the information contained in her posts to help locate “Princess” and bring the men exploiting her to justice, past rescues have failed to provide the girl with trauma-informed services. Instead, she tells her followers that previous rescue attempts left her jailed and then returned to the same living situation that she ran away from.
There is no guarantee if—or when—“Princess” will be found.
She has already been erroneously criminalized and hasn’t received appropriate services, which is unfathomable considering that “Princess” is a sex-trafficked minor, but her experience is not uncommon.
In order to better combat sex trafficking, law enforcement must be given the resources—and the support—to swiftly intervene in these situations and connect sex-trafficking survivors like “Princess” with long-term, trauma-informed care by trained service providers.
Websites and social media services can be used as a catalyst for sex-trafficking victim identification and rescue, but this is meaningless if there isn’t expeditious and appropriate response.
Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and her book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium,” will be published by Praeger/ABC-Clio this year. She welcomes readers’ comments.