When you read the following words, try to picture the face you see saying them. “I was recruited into sexual exploitation. He [the pimp] provided a lot of attention, he seemed like he was very courteous and sweet…. He wanted me to have the best things. A lot of the things that people call “selling a dream” — that’s what I got… But it didn’t take me long to realize that he was a very violent person. He was addicted to crack cocaine … So I learned very early that he needed to have his drug money, or my face was going to be in the wall. The most difficult part of my victimization was the sense of hopelessness.”
This survivor of sex trafficking is a girl, coerced into sexual slavery at age 10. She is one of thousands of American girls who are sexually trafficked every year in our country, many at very young ages. Significantly, these are girls whom our communities have a special responsibility to care for, because a disproportionate number have been under state supervision in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. This is a dark version of an American girl’s story that many of us do not want to face.
But there is reason to hope. Massachusetts, in particular, has taken a leadership role in the fight against sex trafficking. The state’s 2012 commercial trafficking law requires the child welfare system to design a plan to protect every child victim and, importantly, it creates the presumption that any child charged with prostitution is not a criminal, but a victim. Last year, a state task force on human trafficking issued recommendations on expanding victim services programs and safe housing facilities.
In Suffolk County there is an effort that can serve as a model for the rest of the state, and indeed the country. The SEEN coalition (Support to End Exploitation Now Coalition) is the state’s first inter-agency effort to fight sex trafficking. It includes representatives of law enforcement, the child welfare system, the district attorney’s office, the public defender’s office, service providers, and many others. SEEN created a set of guidelines on how to respond to victims quickly and comprehensively, and provide them with the support and care they need to begin the long process of healing.
It is efforts like SEEN, which weave the expertise and commitment of a broad cross-section of agencies, that can most significantly improve our trafficking response by wrapping a team of support around each girl to identify her as a victim, assess her needs, determine appropriate treatment and placement, and just listen to her — all without resorting to the criminal justice system. SEEN’s model should be scaled up to serve all the nation’s girls who have endured this brutal violation of human rights. It’s time to show all of our girls, across the state and across the country, that they are not alone.
Learn more at Peter Edelman’s and Rebecca Epstein’s The Boston Globe article: The fight against sex trafficking.