With the Super Bowl approaching on February 6, advocates for children are putting together a game-changing defensive strategy -- cracking down on human traffickers and helping the young women and men they exploit. Pimps are known to travel long distances to cities hosting large sporting events or conventions, but child welfare advocates and law enforcement officials in Arlington, Texas, home of Super Bowl XLV, are working to assist the young victims and arrest the people who buy and sell them.
Young women and men, some of them under 18, are frequently shuttled from city to city, sold to have sex with sports fans and conventioneers who are traveling without their families. Frequently uprooted and often completely isolated, the victims are seldom able to find a way out of their violent situations. Some are sent out to prostitution at the age of 11, and are estimated to have a life expectancy of just seven years after hitting the streets.
From our work helping young trafficking victims rebuild their lives and overcome unspeakable violence, we know the anguish inflicted by the profiteers who send children out to be raped. Anyone who is enslaved for sexual purposes desperately needs and deserves a safe haven and a chance at a future. These children must be protected, on Super Bowl Sunday and every day.
Homeless young people are particularly vulnerable to being lured into a life of prostitution by pimps who seek them out, offering new clothes, the promises of money, and, often, the illusion of a romantic relationship.
"Homeless kids are really vulnerable, because they have no support system," said Janette Scrozzo, who spent many years heading the outreach program at the Covenant House in Newark, N.J.
"They just don't have the love and support of their families, so when they're out there all alone, all it took was just someone who was nice to them, who was going to give them some attention, and told them they were pretty, and lead them into a false sense of security. That's how all of the victims I worked with got lured and manipulated into this horrible world of trafficking.
"We have to be the people out there looking to find these kids, because the people who are there trying to victimize them are out looking for them. We have to get to them first. Not everyone is going to walk into our crisis centers and say, 'Here I am.'"
One young woman who stayed at Covenant House after escaping her pimp described her life as a trafficking victim:
"I was sold for sex by the hour at truck stops and cheap motels, 10 hours with 10 different men every night. This became my life. Men answered the Craigslist ads and paid to rape me." (Thanks in part to her advocacy efforts, Craigslist no longer carries adult advertisements.)
Victims like this young woman are virtually invisible, and extremely hard to count, working as they do behind locked doors in hotels, and driven away, sometimes in the trunk of a pimp's car, days after arriving in a city. But police have come to expect large influxes of pimps and prostitutes around certain events.
Dallas police Sergeant Louis Felini predicted that between 50,000 and 100,000 prostitutes could be coming to the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area for the game.
Texas is starting defensive measures early, convening a task force focusing on training police officers on how to respond in possible trafficking situations, putting together efforts to help victims and strengthen anti-trafficking laws, and hiring a prosecutor for human trafficking cases. Attorney General Greg Abbott was able to hire a special investigator for the issue, and an auditor to address financial dealings related to prostitution. Websites that advertise sex services will be monitored.
"We're going to stay ahead of the game, shutting them down so no one will be victimized because of the services being advertised," he said. "The recent Super Bowls provide a sobering picture of what can happen." The Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking reported that tens of thousands of women and minors were trafficked in to Miami for last year's Super Bowl, he added. Florida's Department of Children and Families took custody of 24 minors brought in to be sex workers, and the Coalition Against Human Trafficking said it rescued another 14 girls in Miami and 12 the previous year in Tampa Bay, site of the 2009 Super Bowl, Mr. Abbott said.
Last year in Miami, two dozen opponents of sex trafficking took to the streets to look for possible victims.
According to Brad Dennis, Director of Search Operations for the KlaasKids Foundation, carefully trained volunteers talked to 23 potential victims, passed on nine leads to law enforcement officials, helped in finding six missing children, and contributed information leading to the arrest of a man who was importing children to work as prostitutes during the Super Bowl. In Tampa, police arrested 11 people the week of the 2009 game, a police spokeswoman said.
A hotline is available for victims and people who suspect a person is being trafficked, through the National Human Trafficking Resource Center: 1-888-3737-888.
Once they're rescued from their traffickers, some victims are able to stay at Covenant House, said Hugh Organ, the associate executive director of the Philadelphia shelter. But they have far more to overcome than their peers at shelter. "There's a tremendous amount of shame involved, and they may have to come and go a couple times," he said. "They run a significant amount of the time, oftentimes running back to the same situation. They've been raped and beaten on a regular basis, and they're going to need additional counseling. And they have medical needs that need to be cared for." Even so, some are able to recover and lead stable lives, despite their traumas.
In states that are serious about reducing human trafficking, the penalties are slowly falling on the true criminals, the exploiters, not the exploited.
Just this month, Ian Sean Gordon of Tallahassee was sentenced to life in prison for trafficking a runaway teen.
But until the traffickers, and their customers, are stopped, young people will continue to be victimized.