NEW YORK—The "silent crime" of human trafficking, and especially child sex trafficking, is getting a tiny bit louder.
Three bills aimed at curbing human trafficking quietly passed the House in mid-July. Thirteen others passed in May. The bills range from the allocation of funding toward prevention, to closing a loophole in the justice system about distributing images of child pornography.
"The reason they call trafficking a silent crime, is because you have shame and embarrassment on the child's side, and then you have threats and coercion on the perpetrator's side," said Jan Edwards, founder and CEO of Paving the Way, a nonprofit aimed at preventing child trafficking.
The crime is so hidden that a reliable estimate of the prevalence of child sex trafficking in the United States doesn't exist. Estimates vary wildly from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of cases per year.
However, the reported cases and convictions provide a grim enough picture.
Last month, a Texas man was sentenced to life imprisonment for harboring and trafficking a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old girl for commercial sex, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Martavious Keys, 34, placed commercial sex ads on Backpage.com, the most commonly used website for sex trafficking. Keys negotiated with "clients" via text messages pretending to be the girls, who worked out of his home or various hotels in the Dallas area, according to ICE.
Keys sexually assaulted and physically assaulted both girls during the ordeal and threatened them with harm if they did not continue to engage in commercial sex acts. The girls were forced to engage in up to 16 sex acts per day.
Also last month, two Texas men were sentenced to 20 years in prison for sexually exploiting a 12-year-old girl, according to ICE.
Terrell Kinchen, 20, and Troy Applin Jr., 23, lured the girl to Kinchen's apartment, where they forced her to engage in sexual activities with them while they took videos and later posted them on Snapchat and Facebook.
Again in June, a 22-year-old Minnesota man was sentenced to 36 years in prison for sex trafficking three minor girls and for producing and receiving child pornography of two minor girls, according to ICE.
Deuvontay Charles, 22, trafficked two 14-year-olds and a 17-year-old. He promised the 17-year-old quick money and posted her as an "escort" on Backpage.com while operating out of a local hotel.
Getting Lured In
Criminal street gangs are now proliferating in the illegal sex trafficking market, according to Chris Marks, a captain at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, in a Senate hearing testimony on July 20.
"Gang members have realized the lucrative opportunities sex trafficking offers," Marks said. "Throughout Los Angeles County, the majority of sex trafficking cases investigated by the Los Angeles Regional Human Trafficking Task Force have found the trafficker is a member or an affiliate of a criminal street gang."
The average age of girls forced into the commercial sex trade is between 12 and 14; and for boys, it's 11 to 13, according to Homeland Security.
Edwards said pimps look for runaways, outcasts, and children who are having trouble at home, and they even recruit in schools.
"One girl is worth $250,000 a year to a pimp," Edwards said. "They're patient; they'll court them. They'll groom them for nine months or more, because it's worth a lot of money for them."
A smartphone is all they need, she said, calling the devices a "walking app for predators." Social media is prime hunting ground for predators and pedophiles.
"Kids will come home and ... maybe their dad didn't let them go buy the shoes they wanted. They'll go on social media, and say, 'My dad made me mad,'" Edwards said. "And it's a momentary emotional reaction to something that happened. Predators look for that. And they'll pretend to be another teenage girl or boy, and they'll go, 'Oh yeah, I hate my dad too. What did your dad do?'"
"They start a banter. And it could be a 45-year-old man on the other side, waiting for this 14-year-old girl," she said.
Many young people are lured in because the predator fulfills a need for them, often through attention and affection.
"And they start to groom you and create this relationship with you that you've wanted your whole life—and they know it," Edwards said. "And they invite you to a party. ... And then you end up with pictures of yourself on your cellphone the next day, doing things you would never do."
Once there are pictures, it's very easy to threaten and coerce a child, especially if they don't have a parent or trusted friend to go to.
"They threaten to hurt your friends, they threaten to hurt your family, and remember you're only 12, 13, 14, 15 years old. You're going to believe them," Edwards said. "And these girls get beaten into submission."
Aside from physical violence and psychological manipulation, pimps often also get the girls hooked on drugs, which becomes another way of keeping them dependent.
One in five runaway children likely become sex trafficking victims, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). Last year, NCMEC reported 18,500 runaways.
A search on the NCMEC website for children reported missing in the last three weeks brings up 247 cases.
Edwards shared a story of a young girl who told some friends that she was going to the beach with a man she had met online.
"She at least, thank God, told her friends where she was going," Edwards said. So when the girl didn't show up for work the next day, her employer called her emergency contact, which was her father. When he couldn't reach his daughter, the father called her friends and found out what happened.
"He goes to the police station. And luckily, while he's sitting there, she calls. She didn't know where she was. She was in this huge high-rise apartment someplace. And she knew she was in trouble," Edwards said. "The [police] instructed her to go into the bathroom to see if they could find any medication pills with the location. She was up in Jacksonville. She had been drugged by this guy. And by the time the police showed up, he was literally pulling out with her, had a passport, had a suitcase, and was going to take her out of the country."
Edwards said the lifespan of a child forced into sex trafficking is often short.
"If you're lured into this life at 14, the likelihood of you seeing your 22nd birthday—it's not high," she said. "And the even sadder part, when we pull these kids out, much like the abused wife syndrome, 95 percent of them end up right back."
Edwards said that there aren't enough proper services to take care of children rescued from trafficking.
"Prevention and education, to me, is the most important piece of this," she said. "When I encourage parents to get into your kids' business and to have these kinds of straightforward conversations, you're actually saving your child's life from a future that is beyond imagination."
What Children Need to Know
- Know who you are chatting to online.
- If you send compromising photos to someone, assume you are sending them to everyone.
- If something doesn't feel right, trust yourself, check your sources, go talk to other people.
- Find a trusted person you can talk to.
- If someone takes compromising photos of you, tell a trusted person immediately.
Red Flags for Parents and Adults to Watch For
- Sudden change in clothing, interests, or friends.
- Drifting away from family and friends.
- An older boyfriend or girlfriend.
- Unexplained absences and material possessions.
- Fearful, depressed, submissive, or nervous and paranoid behaviors.
- Uncharacteristically promiscuous behavior.
- Signs of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
SOURCES: Department of Homeland Security, National Human Trafficking Resource Center, Jan Edwards