After stepping off the podium at the United Nations, President Obama made a historic commitment -- to combating modern day slavery. Not just in remote corners of the developing world. But here in this country as well.
Many of the slaves in America today are girls. Born in this country. Hidden in plain view.
You see these girls around you. They are the lost girls, standing around bus stops, hanging out by runaway youth shelters, or advertised online. Here in D.C., they are right in front of you. At the Motel 8 or the Marriott, at McDonald's or the bars on U Street and Adams Morgan.
According to the FBI, there are currently an estimated 293,000 American children at risk of being exploited and trafficked for sex. Forty percent of all human trafficking cases opened for investigation between January 2008 and June 2010 were for the sexual trafficking of a child. And while the term trafficking may conjure images of desperate illegal immigrants being forced into prostitution by human smugglers, 83 percent of victims in confirmed sex trafficking cases in this country were American citizens.
The average age of entry into commercial sexual exploitation for these children is between the ages of 12 and 14. They are abducted or lured by traffickers who prey on their trust. They are routinely raped, beaten into submission, and sometimes even branded. When they try to run away, the traffickers torture and or gang rape them.
They are girls like Jackie, who ran away from an abusive home at 13 only to be found alone and hungry by a trafficker who promised to love her like a father/boyfriend/Prince Charming. He sold her to at least six different men every night. When she begged him for food or rest, he beat her.
Many of these girls come out of a broken foster care system. Of the trafficking victims in Alameda County, Calif., 55 percent were from foster youth group homes. In New York, 85 percent of trafficking victims had prior child welfare involvement. And in Florida, the head of the state's trafficking task force estimates that 70 percent of victims are foster youth.
T was born into the foster care system and trafficked at the age of 10 by a trafficker to men all over California, Washington, Oregon and Nevada. As T explained:
In most of my 14 different placements in foster care homes, I was raped, and attached to a check. I understood very early that I could be raped, cared for, and connected to money. It was therefore easy to go from that to a pimp -- and at least the pimp told me that he loved me. And when I was under the control and torture of a pimp, child welfare was never there to help me, even though I was a child being abused.
Young girls like T and Jackie are the new commodities that traffickers and gangs are selling. It is less risky and more profitable to sell girls than crack cocaine or meth. The U.S. government spends 300 times more money each year to fight drug trafficking than it does to fight human trafficking. And the criminal penalties for drug trafficking are generally greater than the ones usually levied against those who traffic in girls.
Legally, men who purchase girls for sex are no different than men who snatch children off the street to violate them. Both are rapists. No child is permitted to have sex with an adult, much less sell her body -- the law says she can't consent. Yet arresting these perpetrators of child rape is rare, and prosecution is even rarer. In most cases, these men are politely referred to as "Johns" and set free. According to the international anti-trafficking organization Shared Hope, very few buyers of prostituted children are arrested or prosecuted in the United States.
In fact, when an arrest is made, it is often the child who ends up behind bars. Most girls in detention, whether they are arrested for prostitution or for running away from foster care, are actually victims of trafficking and sexual violence. Both T and Jackie, and girls like them, were repeatedly arrested and detained for prostitution, despite being children who were forced to sell their bodies. This must be the only time the abused child is incarcerated for the abuse perpetrated against her.
That's the problem -- these girls are not considered victims. Here in D.C., and across the U.S., we have the same child sex slave markets as in Cambodia, the Philippines, and India. Girls are sold to the very same types of men, and they are tortured in almost identical manners if they attempt to leave. Yet these girls, the girls from Southeast D.C. or South Central L.A., are seen as the "ho," the bad girl, the hooker.
It is time to really see these girls and help them. Hopefully, the plans the president outlined will help these girls too -- because no girl in America, in the 21st century, should be for sale.