By Reid Maki, Coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition
It started with an innocuous trip to the mall. A woman in her late 20s approached Natasha, a pretty 19-year-old-teenager, and suggested that she consider a job as a make-up artist. The job involved good money and travel. Natasha was interested. She wasn’t sure she was ready for college, so she figured she’d check out the opportunity. Natasha went to high-rise office building in San Francisco to see the company first hand. There were young people everywhere learning how to apply make-up. Everything looked legitimate. Everyone she met was nice. She went home and convinced her parents, who despite deep reservations, to let her take the job.
On her first day, she was having lunch with her new bosses and she began to feel that something was wrong. The feeling grew. She excused herself to go to the bathroom and made a beeline for her car. When she got to it, one of the bosses grabbed her and kidnapped her.
The next year of Natasha’s life was a living hell. The make-up job was a ruse for a prostitution ring. On one of her first days, her pimp drove her to the school that her little brother attended and told her if she wasn’t compliant—if she ever tried to leave—they would kill the boy. The young girl felt completely trapped.
Natasha—now known as Natasha Herzig—told her compelling story before a packed briefing room in the U.S. House of Representatives on March 16. The briefing’s purpose was to bring attention to the problem of sex trafficking in the U.S. and to garner support for a bill, the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act (see summary), reintroduced by Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas).
The bill, S. 596, would aid victims of sex trafficking and prosecute sex traffickers who exploit underage girls and force them into prostitution. The legislation calls for setting up a six-state pilot program to help law enforcement agencies go after pimps and traffickers. It would also create shelters, provide treatment, counseling and legal assistance for the victims. The legislation passed the Senate and House of Representatives but in a nip-and-tuck-race was not enacted before the congressional session ended. Senator and Senator Cornyn said they are determined to see it pass in the current session. The companion bill will soon be introduced in the House of Representatives.
According to estimates by the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an estimated 100,000 minors—girls and boys—are trafficked in the U.S. each year for sexual purposes. Not all victims are lured away from happy homes like Natasha, who was an honor roll student in an upper-middle class home. Many are runaways who flee dysfunctional homes, thinking the streets will be more tolerable. Some of these children are fleeing sexual predators in their own families.
Academy Award-winning actress and advocate Mira Sorvino urged Americans and law enforcement officials to see this issue in its true light. “All teen prostitution is trafficking,” she said. Yet, she explained, in many localities, “police are still arresting the victims.”
Sorvino noted that when an adult has sex with a minor they may be sentenced to years in jail, but if money is involved, the buyers of sex typically do no jail time. They might face a small fine or be ordered to take a sensitivity workshop. The consequences need to be much tougher, argued Sorvino.
Often the police and male clients tend to think of prostitution as a victimless crime, but many of the trafficked girls are minors who did not enter prostitution willingly or were manipulated into it. The reality is that the young prostitutes have often been broken down psychologically by rapes, beatings, and threats and are not consensual sex partners, suggested Sorvino. The traffickers, she explained, “know exactly what to say” to manipulate the young girls, many of whom are as young as 12 and 13, into the business. She said they are adept at figuring out what the young girls’ hopes and dreams are and appealing to those aspirations.
The young girls are also broken down psychologically—essentially brainwashed. “There comes a point where you become what you know and you are loyal to your trafficker,” noted Natasha. “The brainwashing is a very tricky thing.”
Sorvino also said that the country’s broken foster care system is contributing to the trafficking problem. Too many children are being beaten and sexually abused and feel compelled to hit the streets. Each year, about 1.7 million runaways or “throwaways” leave their homes for the uncertainty of life on the streets. Both Senator Wyden and Sorvino noted the importance of changing the way the public views this issue.
Ernie Allen, the co-founder of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, noted that the sexualization of children in America at “younger and younger ages” is a large part of the problem. “We have created compliant victims who think this is how they are supposed to act,” he noted. “We have got to attack demand,” said Allen, who explained that the fundamental problem is that too many adults want to have sex with kids. “It’s time to address real societal change.”
Sorvino praised the “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” Campaign recently launched by fellow actors Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore. The campaign hopes to reduce the demand for sexual services from minors.
Sorvino also noted that the Internet is making it much too easy for prostitution to flourish and “has to be addressed.”
Ernie Allen agreed that the Internet is a big part of the problem. He noted the successful effort to get the Internet site Craig’s List to stop selling sex ads, but other sites are still doing business, he said.
The amount of money that can be made from sex trafficking is enormous. Senator Wyden noted that criminals who used to traffick drugs and engage in other criminal activities are moving over to sex trafficking because it’s easier. Allen explained that much of the trafficking of teen prostitutes is “organized crime” with traffickers moving teens from city to city to meet demand.
Natasha escaped from her trafficker 10 years ago. A friend and fellow underage prostitute was being beaten so severely that Natasha feared the friend would die. She ended up calling a friend for help. Eventually the authorities became involved and Natasha was free. However, the psychological trauma she suffered continued to haunt her for years. “I had a very long and dark journey to get to where I am today.”
Natasha is now happily married with a child. She works as a victims’ rights advocate and law enforcement trainer. The lack of resources 10 years ago made it very difficult for girls like her to escape their sexual slavery, and she wants to help young girls and women avoid what she went through. She urged the briefing audience attendees to “please, please fight for this [bill].”
Doug Justus, a 29-year-veteran of the Portland, Oregon police force and the former head of Portland’s Police Bureau’s vice unit, noted that when he first started working on criminal cases involving the trafficking of teens, prosecutors would not take his cases. They saw prostitution as a victimless crime that the public did not care about. Justus participated in trafficking sensitivity training through the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which trained nearly 300,000 law enforcement officials, and it completely changed his outlook.
In the past, he had driven by teenage prostitutes without really understanding their plight. Now, he knew the young girls should be viewed as victims. He was then able to convince other law enforcement officers and district attorneys to go through similar training. Portland began prosecuting traffickers. Still, he noted, trafficking cases are enormously difficult to prosecute. He told the story of one 13-year-old girl, Emily, who was nearly beaten to death by her pimp. Justus eventually convinced Emily to testify. After her testimony, she vanished and Justus said that informants have said Emily was murdered by her trafficker. The job is the hardest he ever had as a policeman, said Justus. “It kills you—you can’t sleep at night,” he explained.
The lack of “safe houses” is a particular problem, said Justus, who noted that when Emily was first rescued after being beaten there was no where for her to go. She was eventually released and then beaten by another pimp. “It didn’t have to happen if we had a safe house,” noted Justus. “If we had a safe house, Emily would be alive today.”
Tina Frundt, a former teen trafficking victim, told hearing attendees that she escaped from her trafficker after he beat her and broke her arm. The police arrested her and put her in jail for a year.
Frundt had been adopted into a loving family at age 12, but a pedophile stalked her and helped her run away from her parents after an argument. By the time she was 13, she was working as a stripper and working as a prostitute at truck stops—although working is certainly not the right word because she wasn’t getting paid and she was routinely being victimized by adults.
There were few if any resources to help Frundt escape. Eventually, she decided that she had to help other young girls avoid being trafficked. Today, she operates Courtney’s House, a Washington, DC area shelter for victims, that has helped over 500 young people escape their traffickers and pimps. She also operates a hotline (888-261-3665), and she and her staff hit the streets between 2 a.m. and 7 a.m. to talk to runaways and prostitutes and let them know that there is an alternative.
Frundt noted that while most victims are women and are often trafficked at ages 11 and 12, boys are trafficked too. Most male victims, she said, are first trafficked at ages six to nine years old.
Members of the public interested in helping to pass S. 596 should call or write their Senators and urge them to sponsor the bill. Readers may also sign an online petition to support the legislation at Change.org.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) introduced a companion bill in the House of Representatives during the last congressional session and are expected to re-introduce in this session as well. According to the Polaris Project, 45 states—including Ohio this year—have criminalized sex and labor trafficking. The Massachusetts legislature is working on a trafficking bill. The Georgia State House of Representatives recently passed a sex trafficking bill. Minnesota is also considering a “Safe Harbor” bill that assists the victims of sexual trafficking. And the Hawaiian legislature is deliberating a bill as well.
If you know a child who is missing or in danger of exploitation, please call the 24-hour hotline for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).