WASHINGTON—An innocuous encounter with a polite young man at a local movie theater was the unknown beginning step toward being sex trafficked for a young Virginian teen.
Susan Young said her daughter had just celebrated her 15th birthday when she met a boy who was “close in age, polite, and well-mannered” while at the movies with friends.
They swapped phone numbers and Facebook information.
“With this seemingly small exchange of information, Courtney had no way of knowing that her life and the life of her family would change forever,” Young said during a recent Justice Department (DOJ) anti-trafficking event.
“The boy was not who he appeared to be. Rather than a sweet, innocent young man, he was an MS-13 gang member. His job was to recruit young girls under the false pretense of friendship, luring them into the dark world of human trafficking.”
That was seven years ago, and gang-related trafficking is getting worse, according to Bill Woolf, founder of Just Ask Trafficking Prevention.
“One of the most disturbing but rapidly emerging trends is that of gang-controlled sex trafficking,” Woolf said during a congressional hearing on Dec. 11, 2019.
“Gangs have learned that sex trafficking, particularly of minors, is a low-risk, high-yield criminal enterprise that adequately funds their gang operations throughout the United States and around the world.”
Woolf said gangs, “glorified through Hollywood,” often use violence or threats of violence to control their victims.
Young said that once the MS-13 gang members, who attended her daughter’s high school, found out Courtney was trying to break away from them, they took her to a secluded part of the school’s property and gang-raped her.
“They videotaped that, and told her if she ever told anyone what was happening, they would share the video on social media, and with her friends and family,” Young told The Epoch Times.
“And that episode right there is really what started her whole trafficking. Following that, she was immediately trafficked every day after school. She would tell me that she was staying after school for homework club or yoga club. In fact, the gang was taking her to a nearby house and trafficking her, where eight to 10 gentlemen were waiting. And she had to pretend as if nothing had happened.”
As Courtney was being sex-trafficked by the gang, Young said she found out later that her three younger children— two boys, aged 12 and 11, and a girl who was almost 3 at the time—were also victimized.
On Saturday afternoons, Young and her husband would go for a bike ride at a local park for an hour or so. Little did they know that their house was under constant surveillance and, as they walked out the front door, gang members would enter through the back door.
“The boys were threatened at gunpoint. They both were raped at gunpoint, to keep them silent. They even injected our youngest daughter with drugs. They really used the kids very much against each other to make sure no one talked to the parents, or anyone,” Young said.
The gang members would force Courtney out of the house with them by pointing a gun at her younger sister and saying, “Come with us, or we’re going to shoot your sister right now.”
Young said she and her husband didn’t find out that their sons and younger daughter were abused until a year after Courtney’s situation came to light, “because they were still too scared to speak up and afraid that the gang members were going to come back and get them,” she said.
Young, now the director for Just Ask’s Parent Coalition to End Human Trafficking, said her family fell through the cracks.
She said Courtney tried to seek help 22 times with her school resource officer and school counselor. “They didn’t get back to her once.”
“She did not feel safe to talk to my husband and I—at that time, the gang was threatening her, ‘If you do speak with anybody, we’ll kill your parents, we’ll hurt your little brothers, your sister,’” Young said.
“No one knew how to help our family or how to navigate this delicate situation. The failsafes established to protect families and their children did little to nothing for ours—from the school system to law enforcement, court systems, therapists, doctors.”
Courtney went missing twice over a six-month period—the first time for four days and the second time for two weeks, said Young. Both times, Young said they notified law enforcement and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).
“It wasn’t until she was recovered the second time by a law enforcement officer who was trained in the area of human trafficking that we began to fully understand the magnitude of our situation,” she said.
The family moved, and Courtney spent 4 1/2 years in inpatient residential therapy, trying to recover from the trauma, Young said.
“Oftentimes for victims, one of the hardest things for them to do is to reintegrate back into society. And we need to create programs that teach them to do so, how to live a normal life,” she said.
She said it can be daunting for survivors to carry out everyday tasks such as picking out a shirt or deciding what to eat.
“These traffickers have manipulated them and gained so much control over them that they actually lose the ability to think for themselves,” Young said.
Experts say the average lifespan for a child who is pulled into sex trafficking is seven years. Very few get out and even fewer stay out. Drug addiction and violence are par for the course and the trauma bond created by the trafficker can entice a victim back in, even after they’ve been rescued.
Foster Care, Homelessness, and Trafficking
The 2019 State Department trafficking report said children in the U.S. foster care system are at high risk of becoming trafficked.
“Recent reports have consistently indicated that a large number of victims of child sex trafficking were at one time in the foster care system,” the 2019 Trafficking In Persons report states.
In 2019, more than 437,000 children were in foster care, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Bill Bedrossian is the CEO of Covenant House in California, which provides residential programs and services to children and youth facing homelessness in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America.
He said that 30 percent to 50 percent of the human trafficking victims that Convenant House works with come from the foster care system, and that traffickers deliberately target foster kids.
“We see traffickers get young victims to try to victimize others through group homes, through foster care networks,” he said.
Bedrossian stressed that child sex trafficking is predominantly a domestic issue. He said 90 percent of the young women who have been trafficked that come through Covenant House are from the United States.
Another group of vulnerable children who are targeted by traffickers are the homeless, including runaways.
Of the more than 23,500 endangered runaways reported to NCMEC in 2019, 1 in 6 were likely victims of child sex trafficking.
Bedrossian cited a recent study directed by Convenant House that showed that 20 percent of young people who experience homelessness also experienced human trafficking.
“And so, by default, we’ve been doing victim services for human trafficking victims over the last 50 years,” Bedrossian said. “But in the last five to 10 years, the victimology has become much different. The sophistication of the traffickers has become much different. The insidiousness of the course of this has become much different.”
Young homeless people are “relatively easy” to lure from the streets with promises of love, protection, food, and financial security, the Covenant House website states.
“For a lot of these young people, they literally have begun being trafficked at 8, 9 years old by their family members, by the gangs, by the street life that they’ve been exposed to,” Bedrossian said.
Convictions and New Challenges
The DOJ convicted 501 sex traffickers in fiscal 2018, up from 471 in fiscal 2017. It took down Backpage.com in 2018, the largest internet site that advertised the sex trafficking of minors and adults. But other sites have since sprung up, including those hosted overseas, which presents an extra challenge for law enforcement.
The NCMEC CyberTipline received 1.1 million reports of child online sexual exploitation in 2014; in 2019, it received 16.9 million reports.
But the challenges with technology remain the most complex for law enforcement to contend with. Tech companies are providing users with more applications that have end-to-end encryption; cryptocurrency hides the money trail; and advertising sites are hosted overseas or on the dark web.
The DOJ has said end-to-end encryption without a backdoor for law enforcement stymies criminal investigations. Tech companies say a backdoor presents a security risk for users.
Victim Services and Moving Forward
While the Youngs slipped through the cracks years ago, more organizations have since sprung up to support survivors and their families.
The DOJ has also poured more funding into victim support services, which are becoming a more integral component of the law enforcement side of trafficking.
During fiscal 2018, the DOJ provided $31.2 million for 45 victim service providers—a significant increase from 18 providers receiving $16.2 million in fiscal 2017.
But, as Young said, gangs have also proliferated.
“It was really hard for us to find a safe place to go and kind of hide the family, so to speak, after our situation,” she said. She said they moved to an area that doesn’t have an MS-13 presence, to their knowledge. However, the surrounding areas do.
“We feel as safe as we can be from our situation,” she said. “We just try to stay in the shadows and not draw any attention to ourselves or to our family.”
Even now, she is learning more about what happened. Recently, she found out that her eldest son was also trafficked with Courtney.
“So he and Courtney, life will always be different for them, it will always move at a much slower pace. They will have to deal with complex PTSD and anxiety and depression—the fear that someone will always come back to get them or will be waiting for them—that will never leave them. I’m always looking for new therapies to try for PTSD and try to help them,” she said.
Courtney is now almost 24 and lives close by, while studying to be a veterinarian. The boys are 20 and 19; one is at college working toward a degree in cybersecurity and the other is about to start college. And the youngest daughter is nearly 12.
The traffickers haven’t faced justice.
Young wants people to understand that they shouldn’t wait until they know of a victim before they take notice of the problem.
“I really just want to empower the public, for them to understand and educate themselves that human trafficking is real. It’s happening every single day.”
NCMEC 24-hour Hotline: 1-800-843-5678