Tough economic times and strapped government budgets are tearing our social fabric in the weakest places. One of the saddest and most gruesome examples is the steady rise in the commercial sexual exploitation of children, especially those who run away from home or broken systems designed to protect them. The commercial sexual exploitation of children exists in the underbelly of every city in America. Children are commercially sexually exploited through prostitution, pornography, erotic entertainment, and/or results when a minor is given or receives anything of value (money, shelter, food, clothes, drugs, etc.) to any person in exchange for a sex act.
The police and legal system can make an enormous difference in protecting America’s vulnerable and sexually exploited children through arrests and prosecutions of the people who buy and sell children for sex and other exploitative purposes. But law enforcement alone cannot save or repair the lives of these abused children. These children really need is a broader effort, funded by the federal government, to be treated as the helpless young victims that they are. The children, both girls and boys, should be protected, made safe, and provided with the opportunity to heal. They need safe housing, trauma-informed counseling, and help re-entering a world from which they have been disconnected. This is far from what we are now offering them.
Ronald Hosko, assistant director of the FBI’s criminal division, said that the most vulnerable victims forced into sex trafficking range in age from 13 to 16 and most of the children come from either foster care homes or are considered runaways. It is the most invisible youth –homeless, runaway, and child welfare and juvenile justice-involved youth, who are at the highest risk of being targeted by traffickers and pimps and enslaved in commercial sexual exploitation.
The lack of placements for these young people other than juvenile detention continues to label these young people as criminals, to both the public and the child. Our government and communities have invested in costly and damaging juvenile detention and not in safe, youth-appropriate, and effective options.
The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA), which has been around since the70s, was originally enacted with the goal of preventing what we today label as commercial sexual exploitation, a form of human trafficking. Yet these vital grant programs have been chronically underfunded even as the economic recession has pushed up the demand for services. RHYA funds the pillar programs that protect youth, prevent victimization, and enable traumatized youth to be academically and vocationally successful: street outreach,emergency shelters, and transitional living programs, including maternity group homes, for youth. Greater investment is needed to insure youth are not turned away from safe places and to increase capacity to serve youth who have specialized needs.
In America our children are bought and sold for sex. We can no longer hide behind a lack of data, but need to make a commitment to protect and serve these youth who are in custody now or on the streets every day and in every community in America. As a nation, we can’t afford to wait.
Learn more at Deborah Shore’s and Darla Bardine’s Huffington Post article: Kids caught in child sex trafficking are victims, not perps — and need our help.