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Kids Caught in Child Trafficking Are Victims, Not Perps -- And Need Our Help

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Tough economic times and strapped government budgets are tearing our social fabric in the weakest places. One of the saddest and most gruesome examples is the steady rise in the commercial sexual exploitation of children, especially those who run away from home or broken systems designed to protect them.

As leaders of programs to help troubled youths, we applaud the FBI's recent crack down on sex trafficking.

But law enforcement alone cannot save or repair the lives of these abused children. Too often, police and the courts treat these kids as perpetrators or "prostitutes." But what these children really need is a broader effort, funded by the federal government, to be treated as the helpless young victims that they are.

Nearly three weeks ago, FBI's Operation Cross Country arrested 152 pimps and recovered 106 children who were commercially sexually trafficked in 76 U.S. cities. Operation Cross Country is part of the Bureau's Innocence Lost National Initiative and is the largest enforcement action to date. Detroit, Milwaukee and San Francisco FBI divisions each recovered 10 or more victims.

We can only hope that this enforcement operation results in a serious interruption of the commercial sexual exploitation of children (sex trafficking), which exists in the underbelly of every city in America. Children are commercially sexually exploited through prostitution, pornography, erotic entertainment, and/or results when a minor is given or receives anything of value (money, shelter, food, clothes, drugs, etc.) to any person in exchange for a sex act.

The police and legal system can make an enormous difference in protecting America's vulnerable and sexually exploited children through arrests and prosecutions of the people who buy and sell children for sex and other exploitive purposes.

The children, both girls and boys, should be protected, made safe, and provided with the opportunity to heal. They need safe housing, trauma-informed counseling, and help re-entering a world from which they have been disconnected. This is far from what we are now offering them.

Every year in the United States, at least 100,000 children are commercially sexually exploited and 380,000 homeless youth are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation. It is estimated, that 60 percent of children who are victimized, are homeless. Within 48 hours of being on the street 1 in 3 youth, who are throwaways or runaways, are likely to be solicited for prostitution or another form of commercial sexual exploitation. Ronald Hosko, assistant director of the FBI's criminal division, said that the most vulnerable victims forced into sex trafficking range in age from 13 to 16 and most of the children come from either foster care homes or are considered runaways.

We know these young people. Debby has been in the field of service to runaway and homeless youth for 40 years as the Founder of Sasha Bruce runaway shelter in Washington, DC and current Board Chair of the National Network for Youth. Darla Bardine is Policy Director of the National Network for Youth, which represents runaway and homeless youth programs all over the United States. Sasha Bruce and its sister agencies around the country, see many youth who have been sexually trafficked. It is the most invisible youth --homeless, runaway, and child welfare and juvenile justice-involved youth, who are at the highest risk of being targeted by traffickers and pimps and enslaved in commercial sexual exploitation.

The question is why is more not being done to protect these children and provide them with appropriate services?

The lack of placements for these young people other than juvenile detention continues to label these young people as criminals, to both the public and the child. As was said when reporting on Operation Cross Country, a community lacking safe and therapeutic places for sex trafficking victims, place these young people in detention facilities. Our government and communities have invested in costly and damaging juvenile detention and not in safe, youth-appropriate, and effective options.

The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA), which has been around since the70s, was originally enacted with the goal of preventing what we today label as commercial sexual exploitation, a form of human trafficking. Yet these vital grant programs have been chronically underfunded even as the economic recession has pushed up the demand for services. RHYA funds the pillar programs that protect youth, prevent victimization, and enable traumatized youth to be academically and vocationally successful: street outreach, emergency shelters, andtransitional living programs, including maternity group homes, for youth. Greater investment is needed to insure youth are not turned away from safe places and to increase capacity to serve youth who have specialized needs. In Washington, DC alone Sasha Bruce's respite shelter turned away 233 youth over the past 5 months due to a lack of space. How many of these youth became prey to sociopathic sexual traffickers as a result?

In America our children are bought and sold for sex. We can no longer hide behind a lack of data, but need to make a commitment to protect and serve these youth who are in custody now or on the streets every day and in every community in America. As a nation, we can't afford to wait.

Authors: Deborah Shore, Founder and Executive Director of Sasha Bruce Youthwork. Deborah Shore has led groundbreaking work in youth and family service development in the District of Columbia and is the Board Chair for the National Network for Youth.

Darla Bardine is the Policy Director at the National Network for Youth (NN4Y). The National Network, founded in 1974, is the nation's leading network of homeless and runaway youth programs. The Network champions the needs of runaway, homeless, and other disconnected youth through strengthening the capacity of community-based services, facilitating resource sharing, and educating the public and policy makers. NN4Y members serve youth across the country and work collaboratively to prevent youth homelessness and the inherent risks of living on the streets, including exploitation, human trafficking, criminal justice involvement, or getting killed on the streets. For more information about the National Network for Youth, visit www.nn4youth.org.