WASHINGTON, D.C. - Children forced to become prostitutes in the United States should receive far more protection and support from government and non-governmental agencies than they are receiving today, according to five survivors of domestic sex trafficking in the United States who spoke at an unprecedented Congressional briefing on sexually exploited youth Thursday.
The five survivors, most of whom were sexually assaulted as young children, want enforcement and protection provisions that apply to foreign girls and women brought by traffickers to the United States to apply to girls trafficked within the U.S. as well. The provisions are spelled out in the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).
The girls charged that the men who exploited them were rarely arrested or prosecuted by law-enforcement officers, even though they were known to police and frequently in contact with them.
"There were plenty of times where my pimp would get pulled over just to get searched for drugs or anything on him and they would pull $15,000 out of this man's pocket," recounted a 23-year-old Chicago woman named Jessica, who said she was forced by her father to earn money on the streets beginning at age nine.
"You know what they would do with that money? They would just give it back and say, 'Oh, this was a good night, huh? Wasn't it? All right, I'll see you tomorrow. Keep your hoes on the other side of the bridge.' Then they would go half way around the block and be, like, 'Come on, let's go, you're going to jail; you know the routine' or, 'Alright, let's go behind this building and you take care of me so that I will let you go to your daddy tonight.'"
The survivors, who were brought to testify by social services agencies that specialize in dealing with child prostitution in New York, Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and San Francisco, also complained that police, social workers, and other front-line service-providers lack training in dealing with child prostitutes, as well as the resources to help them escape trafficking and establish new lives.
"We believe that law enforcement is not receiving the training that is necessary to even acknowledge that girls are victims of sexual exploitation," said Candace, a 21-year-old survivor who bounced around foster homes after being raped at the age of four and, now works with the Girls Educational Mentoring Services (GEMS), a specialized agency, in New York City. "Girls are arrested and criminalized; they are in a system where they are penalized for something that they were forced into," she said.
Rachel Lloyd, GEMS executive director, told the briefing--which was co-hosted by the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues and the Congressional Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children--said some 300,000 children are victims of sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation in the U.S. every year. Their plight, she said, has been largely hidden from public view.
Last summer, GEMS and several other specialized agencies held a meeting of 22 victims from around the country, called 'Breaking the Silence.' "For a long time, it's been seen that survivors don't have a voice," said Lloyd, and the meeting and Thursday's briefing were designed to provide them with one.
"It didn't just take putting on a suit and getting on the plane," she said of the five survivors who spoke at the briefing. "It took years of struggle and surviving and fighting, through danger and life-threatening experiences of feeling that you didn't belong, that you didn't fit in, that you were stigmatized by society, and that no one will ever hear your voice."
In describing how they came to be trafficked, the women stressed the role of media in glamorizing prostitutes and pimps; the friends, family, and caretakers who abused them or lured them into prostitution; and the ways they were blamed and shamed by police, social workers, and other community agencies who should have protected and supported them.
"I can't remember the first trick but I do remember the pain long after years of being on the streets," said Paula who began working at a massage parlor at the age of 12. "I remember having to make quotas before being able to come in the house. I remember lonely nights, wishing I was dead, wishing (that) if only my family would have been different, if only my brother didn't sexually abuse me, if only my dad's best friend didn't abuse me, my life would be different."
She said she had been bought sold and traded by different pimps eight times, often ending up in hospital emergency rooms with broken bones and beatings. "No one told me that I was a traffic(ing) victim or a domestic (abuse) victim. Not only was I not seen as a victim, but I was seen as a criminal," said Paula, who now works with the 'Breaking Free' agency in St. Paul.
Jennifer, originally from Portland, Oregon, began hanging out on the street at 13 due to an abusive home situation, and was soon picked up by a pimp who took her to San Francisco where she was given the choice of selling drugs or sex. "From the mental abuse, the beatings, everything, I thought I deserved it, you know, I thought it was my fault, I was a bad person. I couldn't leave, you know, because there was nowhere to go, nobody cared," she said, adding that, while police would stop her and verbally abuse her, "they'd look at the pimps and just go, like, 'Hey, how are you doing?' Never once (did) the police officer say, 'You now, you are better than this... There are programs that can help you.'" It was only after she was arrested at 16 that she met someone from a special-services agency, SAGE, for which she currently working.
The survivors stressed that the enforcement of the TVPA against domestic traffickers, as well as additional funding for victim services under the PROTECT Act, could make a major difference for many children.
The TVPA, which was meant to crack down on traffickers who smuggle an estimated 50,000 foreign girls and women into the U.S. each year for sexual and other forms of exploitation, provides penalties of up to 20 years in prison for trafficking with the possibility of life imprisonment where the offense results in death or involves kidnapping, aggravated sexual abuse, or attempted murder. It also provides special protections and support for victims who agree to testify against the perpetrators.
The survivors also called for greatly expanded services for victims, stressing that very few cities have specialized agencies to work with child prostitutes. "Basically, there is a location in Chicago; there is a location in New York; there's one in Minnesota and California, but what about Colorado? What about Arkansas? What about Florida? What about New Mexico?" asked Jessica.
They also called for schools to teach and warn children about sexual abuse and trafficking as early as the sixth grade.
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