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Protecting the Mothers of Tomorrow

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Imagine you are a mother of a teenage girl who has been missing for nine months. After exhausting all search options, you begin to wonder if you will ever see your daughter again -- but you will not give up. You continue to do all you can to find your daughter, and one day you finally do ... scantily clad and posted for sale on Village Voice Media's classified site Backpage.com.

Unfortunately, this story is not made up. "Janice," a mother from St. Louis, found her daughter on Backpage.com where a trafficker forced her to place ads to attract buyers. The trafficker picked Janice's daughter up at an Arby's, 24 hours after she ran away from home, and forced her into sexual slavery. Working with law enforcement, Janice was able to save her daughter, who is now in treatment, but these kinds of scars are slow to heal.

According to a recently released Justice Department report, more than 80 percent of the 2,515 suspected incidents of human trafficking investigated by law enforcement agencies between January 2008 and June 2010 involved sex trafficking. The report, written by the department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), says that of all sex trafficking victims, about 83 percent were U.S. citizens and were "overwhelmingly female," with female victims involved in 94 percent of sex trafficking cases.

Perhaps the most shocking statistic in the report is that nearly half -- 40 percent -- of investigated incidents uncovered the sexual exploitation or forced prostitution of children, the majority of which one can assume are girls with U.S. citizenship.

It's difficult to say exactly how many girls are being bought and sold for sex against their will in this country, but it is estimated that as many as 300,000 children in America are at risk of being trapped in the sex slave trade every year.

What we do know is that the Internet has made it harder to locate children victimized by sex traffickers and the predators who fuel the booming sex trafficking industry, which is now tied with arms dealing as the second most lucrative underground market, just behind drugs. Many of the girls and young women are no longer on the street or at truck stops where law enforcement can see these young victims. They are instead being bought and sold against their will online.

Traffickers aren't the only ones benefiting from this migration. In the last six months, six websites tracked by the AIM Group have generated $16.8 million from online sex ads. Village Voice Media's Backpage.com remains the leading U.S. online publisher in the sex ad category, providing the nation's most frequently visited online marketplace for buying and selling girls.

In February alone, it generated $1.8 million from the escort and body rub ad categories, both common euphemisms for prostitution, and frequently used by traffickers and buyers to exploit girls. One shimmer of hope for the girls trafficked offline and on sites like Backpage.com is that our nation is beginning to awaken to their horrific plight.

United States Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and John Cornyn (R-TX) have recently re-introduced a federal bill that would go a long way in protecting and supporting child sex trafficking victims and survivors. S. 596, The Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking and Victims Support Act of 2011, seeks to amend the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2005 by authorizing large block grants to create a comprehensive, victim-centered approach to addressing the sex trafficking of minors in the U.S.

The grants would be used to fund direct services to survivors, law enforcement activities and public awareness outreach in six regionally diverse locations within the U.S. The bill has now been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee and we are awaiting re-introduction in the House.

State houses across the country are also starting to enact laws addressing domestic minor sex trafficking, with states like Texas and Georgia -- hardly known for their progressive legislation -- moving laws forward to more harshly punish traffickers, address demand, and better protect child victims of this horrible crime.

These steps make clear that the advocacy movement and public and political will to address and combat the sex trafficking of our country's most vulnerable children is growing, but we cannot stop here.

On the heels of celebrating mothers across our great nation for their steadfast and unwavering dedication to their children, let us collectively stand with mothers like Janice to protect all of our nation's daughters, and call on our local, state, and federal governments to do more to protect and support girls trapped in sexual slavery. While the roots of child sex trafficking are tangled and complex, some viable options for concrete action are simple:

Congress must pass S. 596 to give shelter and critical support services to child sex trafficking victims.

We must stop criminalizing young victims of sex trafficking in every state and instead link them to the restorative care they need to move from crisis to security.

Internet sites like Backpage must realize their role in the sex trafficking trade and stop providing a platform for traffickers and predators to victimize our children. If they don't, government agencies and officials must intervene.

Let us join together to create zero tolerance for the buying and selling of children for sex because if even one girl is trapped in sexual slavery, it is one girl too many.

Take Action today to ensure that all of our nation's daughters and mothers of tomorrow have the power to build A Future Not A Past.

Join our movement on Facebook.

Deborah Richardson is the spokesperson for A Future. Not A Past., Women's Funding Network's national initiative to address and combat the sex trafficking of underage girls in the United States.