Health

Exposing The Forced Prostitution And Human Trafficking Of American Children

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More than 100 nonprofits are joining forces to tackle an issue they say often goes overlooked in the United States: the forced prostitution and human trafficking of American children.

Although sex trafficking is often framed as an issue of concern in other countries — it’s the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world — activists say it’s also happening here at home. An estimated 100,000 U.S. kids are forced into prostitution each year, and federal investigators regularly rescue children from the streets. The Polaris Project, one of the largest anti-trafficking groups in the country, identified more than 9,000 instances of trafficking in the United States between 2008 and 2012 alone.

That’s why advocates formed the “Everyone’s Kids, Everyone Gives” campaign, a one-day fundraising drive that kicked off on Tuesday. The idea is to mobilize Americans across the country to support the wide range of nonprofit groups that are working to prevent children from being trafficked and to help them lead healthy lives after being rescued from the sex industry.

“The mission is not only to raise funding but also to bring awareness that this is happening in the U.S., something a lot of people aren’t aware of,” Bonnie Calvin, the campaign’s executive director, told ThinkProgress. “A lot of people don’t know that human trafficking is a thriving criminal industry in the United States.”

Indeed, trafficking is a $9.8 billion industry in this country. Pimps, who typically control four to six children each, can make $150,000 to $200,000 per child each year.

The children who are forced into sex work are typically about 12 to 14 years old. They tend to come from disadvantaged backgrounds, often from abusive households or the foster care system, and typically end up in the industry because of the promise of economic security. The rates of child poverty in the U.S. put vulnerable girls at particular risk. And since many of these minors don’t have a support system, there’s no one to notice they’re missing once they’re in the sex industry.

“This is a hard issue for Americans to confront because it’s so disturbing — and the fact that sex trafficking is happening here forces us to face some uncomfortable realities about why that is,” Calvin noted.

Addressing the root cause of the issue involves a commitment to expanding social safety net services for impoverished children. The people working in the field say they simply need more support in order to create a society in which vulnerable girls can thrive.

“The work that we do — housing young people, feeding them, clothing them, helping them get back into school, providing them with employment — takes a lot of resources,” Rachel Lloyd, the founder and CEO of GEMS, an organization that works to empower girls and women who have experienced domestic trafficking, told ThinkProgress. “If you’re going to tell someone to leave their trafficker and get out of that life, you have to have somewhere for them to go and something for them eat.”

Another barrier to effectively assisting child victims of sex trafficking is the risk of criminalization. According to the Polaris Project, just 12 states in the U.S. currently have “safe harbor” laws, which ensure that the children who have been sexually exploited are granted immunity from prosecution. In the parts of the country that haven’t yet enacted this type of legislation, advocates say victims of crime end up getting blamed for their own exploitation, something they see as a human rights issue.

Lloyd says there’s “a long way to go” on this issue, especially when it comes to ensuring that communities don’t “stigmatize and shame” victims of trafficking. But she’s encouraged by the recent attention to the issue. In 2012, President Obama signed an executive order related to preventing federal contractors from engaging in trafficking. And just a few months ago, lawmakers introduced national legislation aimed at preventing immigrants from being trafficked in the U.S.

“I’ve done this work for 17 years, and we’re in a very, very different place than we were in 1997,” Lloyd said. “We’re beginning to make a lot of inroads.”

If the “Everyone’s Kids, Everyone Gives” campaign is successful, the nonprofit groups may try it again in the future. “We want to help people understand why this happening, help them see why we shouldn’t blame the girls for it, and really offer this inspiring call to action to get involved,” Calvin said.

If you need help, you can call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center 24 hours a day at 1-888-373-7888.