THE BLOG
01/29/2016 05:37 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2017

Victims of Human Trafficking Must Be Treated As Victims

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January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. All month, we have had the official opportunity to contemplate the tragic fact that more people are enslaved right now than at any other time in history. The victims of human trafficking, modern-day slavery, are among the most vulnerable members of our communities.

It is estimated that half of the victims of human trafficking are children, with an average age between 11 and 14 years old when they enter the world of sex trafficking. Many of these children have run away from abusive or neglectful homes, are living on the streets, and are forced into the commercial sex trade to acquire food, shelter, and clothing necessary for survival. They are easy targets for traffickers, who lie, manipulate, threaten, and violently force them into prostitution.

These children are heartbreaking victims of terrible exploitation, but we do not always treat them as sympathetic victims in need of healing and compassion, particularly when they resort to violence against their abusers.

Cyntoia Brown was only sixteen years old when she was trafficked by a pimp who called himself "Cut-throat." Cyntoia suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, a birth defect caused by her birthmother's excessive consumption of alcohol during her pregnancy. The effects of fetal alcohol syndrome include intellectual disabilities that affect a person's ability to think rationally and appreciate the consequences of her conduct, as well as neurological, emotional, and behavioral issues. Cyntoia came from a broken home, and as a young teenager she began abusing alcohol and drugs. She eventually ran away. By the time she took up with Cut-throat, she had already been the victim of several rapes and physical abuse. She and Cut-throat lived in a motel room, which, along with his drug habit, Cyntoia paid for by selling sex. Cut-throat was physically and verbally abusive, and he threatened to find Cyntoia if she ever left him.

Late one night, a forty-three-year-old man picked up sixteen-year-old Cyntoia close to the motel where she stayed. He took her back to his house, showed her his gun collection, and bragged about being an expert marksman. The man's allusions to guns spooked Cyntoia. Having been the consistent victim of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Cut-throat, his friends, and nameless johns for months, she began to fear for her life. She believed that the man might try to hurt or kill her. Although they went to bed together, she tried to keep him from kissing and touching her. When the man turned his back to her, Cyntoia retrieved from her purse a gun that Cut-throat had given to her for protection. She shot the man in the back of the head as he lay naked in bed, grabbed two of his guns so she would not return to Cut-throat empty-handed, and fled.

Cyntoia was eventually apprehended and charged with the premeditated murder of the man who picked her up for sex. Although she was only sixteen years old, Cyntoia was tried as an adult. She was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. She will not be eligible for parole until she is 67 years old. Cyntoia's history - the fetal alcohol syndrome, the broken home, the drug and alcohol addiction, the prior victimization, the trauma of being physically abused and sexually exploited - was not taken into account when deciding Cyntoia's fate. She, a victim of human trafficking, was simply labelled a murderer and discarded for the rest of her life.

Cyntoia's story is tragic, but it is by no means unique. Numbers are hard to estimate, given the hidden nature of human trafficking, but as many as 300,000 children are trafficked for commercial sex each year in the United States. The crisis is immense and complex. There are no easy answers or quick fixes. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that the victims of trafficking are, in fact, victims.

Cyntoia, a child, was a victim of cruel exploitation before she pulled the trigger, and she did not cease to be a victim thereafter. Recent scientific data has confirmed what common sense has always taught us: children are different from adults. Children, even children who are sixteen and seventeen years old, are not yet physiologically and psychologically formed. Cyntoia is not the same person that she was when she was sixteen. She has overcome her awful past, is compassionate and caring, has a quick wit, and is a straight-A college student. Imprisoning her for the rest of her life constitutes a failure on the part of society to treat children as children and victims as victims.

As we commemorate Human Trafficking Awareness month, we should be especially concerned with healing victims of the kind of trauma caused by being trafficked for sex, even if those victims have acted out violently.

We must invest in programs that bring about lasting change because we know that people, especially young people like Cyntoia, have great potential to grow and transform into something profound and wholesome and altogether different from their traumatic past. Toward that end, I am grateful that my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, recently announced the creation of a Human Trafficking Court, the goals of which are to identify victims of human trafficking and assist them by providing drug or mental health treatment, job and life skills training, or access to housing. Nashville will be just the fifth city in the country to implement such a court. In so doing, the city implicitly recognizes that people who are forced into sex should be treated as victims, not as criminal defendants.

In spite of everything that has happened to her, Cyntoia has managed to persevere. Had she been a recipient of intervention, counseling, drug treatment, and not merely decades of punishment, there is no telling what she could have achieved.

My prayer is this: may we be mindful of the victims of slavery every day of the year. May we remember that in these exploited ones is the potential for great good, the capability to show great kindness and compassion, and a desire to move past the nightmare of being bought and sold. May we never be content to treat these vulnerable members of our society as no better than their abusers, even when they have engaged in criminal conduct or resorted to violence. Instead, may we invest in their future, trusting that new life is always possible.