Operation Cross Country, a three-day nationwide enforcement campaign by the FBI focusing on underage victims of sex trafficking, recently concluded with the rescue of 105 sexually exploited children and the arrests of 150 pimps and other individuals. In the Bay Area, 12 children were rescued from pimps.
I just returned from Washington D.C., where I participated in a panel on how runaway and homeless youth programs can work with commercial sexually exploited children (CSEC). Bill Wilson Center is part of the South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking, a group of human services and law-enforcement agencies working together to combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
While the issue is not new for runaway programs, aggressive pimps going after these young people is now more common. Vulnerable youth, especially those on the run, are often preyed upon by pimps. Studies show that runaways are often identified and targeted by pimps within 48 hours of hitting the streets. Runaway programs need to learn how keep young people safe and must work with local law enforcement when CSEC victims seek help from runaway shelters.
For many advocates, attacking the problem begins by changing the words we use to describe the issue from prostitution to human trafficking.
It is illegal to have sex with a minor, so how can a child consent to prostitution? Not using the term “prostitution” when referring to underage children engaged in sexual activity with adults, is a start. While the federal government has been addressing human trafficking in other countries for some time, it is now focusing on trafficking in the U.S., including the exploitation of minors by labor and commercial sexual operations.
Not all victims are underage girls; underage boys, transgender youth, and transition-age homeless youth, just over age 18, are also at high-risk of trafficking. Many pimps recruit “just barely” 18-year-olds exiting foster care or on the street into prostitution. Without family to care for them, these young people can be even more isolated and more at-risk of victimization.
Communities are beginning to understand that a coordinated approach is needed to help victims of human trafficking. Law enforcement, rape crisis centers, domestic violence programs, runaway shelters, street outreach efforts and foster care agencies are working together to develop agreements and best practices to help victims reintegrate into the community and return to families, foster care or other safe housing.
Recognizing that pimps move around the Bay Area, Alameda County has taken the lead in recommending a regional protocol in responding to sex trafficking of children.
Where sexually exploited victims stay while receiving services is another thorny issue. Many feel that youth need to be kept in protective custody at juvenile hall, although studies show that placing these victims in jail further traumatizes them. On the other hand, if housed in an open setting many of these victims will also migrate back to pimps.
Some states have already changed their laws to no longer allow juveniles to be prosecuted for prostitution or locked in secure facilities. The National Center for Youth Law recently issued the report, “Ending the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children: A Call for Multi-System Collaboration in California.” It includes recommendations for tackling the problem, noting that these victims are better served in other settings outside of the juvenile justice system.
There are fewer than 100 beds across the nation for young people in programs that have been specifically designed for children who are survivors of CSEC, according to a 2011 report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
With few alternatives currently available, we must continue to develop services and support systems designed for the emergency and long-term care of children who are trafficked for labor or sexual purposes, especially for children who cannot be reunited with their families. We can’t allow homeless youth to fall through the cracks among local juvenile justice, child welfare and/or community based agencies.
Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth.