On Feb. 4, sixteen girls, some as young as 13 years old, were rescued in a crackdown on child sex trafficking in New Jersey, according to the FBI.
Teens from across the country were made to service clients attending the Super Bowl—an event, which has become the largest venue for human trafficking in the world, according to the Wichita State University’s Center for Combating Human Trafficking (CCHT).
In a statement, Ron Hosko, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, said high-profile events, which draw large crowds have become “lucrative opportunities” for child sex trafficking.
According to Karen Countryman-Roswurm, executive director of CCHT, in a culture fascinated by sex and driven by instant gratification, some believe that it’s acceptable to prey upon the weak and vulnerable.
“There are folks who come to the Super Bowl ready to spend money on alcohol, on sex, or on other things to help celebrate the festivities,” she said. “When you look at how many men purchase sex, and specifically purchase sex from children, you have to admit that there’s a larger societal context that says that behavior is okay,” she said.
Roswurm has been working to help sex trafficking victims for nearly 20 years. Her career began at 16 at the Wichita Children’s Home where she first discovered the horror that can befall many runaway youth.
“It’s so similar to other forms of relationship violence, domestic violence, because there is that trauma bond as well. Victims are very bonded to their perpetrator,” she said.
Hard to Track
According to the Polaris Project— an organization committed to combating human trafficking—child sex slavery is a multi-billion dollar industry that affects every corner of the country, all the time.
Polaris’s National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline received more than 14,000 cases of human trafficking in the last six years. The hotline takes an average of 100 calls per day, but according to the Polaris website, “this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
According to Brian Gran, associate professor of Sociology and Law, Case Western Reserve University, one major problem with confronting child sex slave operations is that they are remarkably evasive.
“The Internet is a key instrument in all of this, and it’s really hard to track,” he said.
While some child sex traffickers advertise underage escorts using Backpage, a goods and services website similar to Craigslist, according to Gran, much of the promotion is done on invitation only websites known exclusively to those in the sex trafficking community.
All Kids at Risk
The life of a child sex slave is unfathomable. According to CCHT, girls as young as 12 are forced into prostitution, and are likely to be murdered once they become more trouble than they’re worth to pimps.
Roswurm said, “Imagine a child in a 13- or 14-year-old body. There is physical damage after that. Not to mention the emotional and mental … it’s unimaginable.”
According to the FBI, the girls rescued in New Jersey were runaways—high school students and younger who had previously been reported missing. Victims generally come from homes where they have been abused or abandoned, but Roswurm stressed that all children are at risk.
“Any of our kids can be vulnerable to sex trafficking, especially with social media these days,” she said. “I worked a case with a young girl from an average, middle-class American home. She meets a guy on Facebook and he happens to say all the right things on the day that she’s mad at her parents, and then she’s gone.”
The FBI arrested 45 people this week, but Gran and Roswurm want more effort to target customers. “They caught some pimps, but it doesn’t say a lot about the men, or even women, who are trying to purchase as clients,” Gran said.
Experts stress that law enforcement is only part of the solution. Once rescued, former sex slaves still need counseling and other assistance to help them heal.
“Sometimes it’s not best they go back with their families. There may be good reason why these children ran away. It’s a super-complicated situation,” Gran said.
CCHT help survivors navigate the complexity, lending support to nonprofits that directly serve victims as they recover. CCHT has also guided the Kansas Legislature with new laws—such as increased fines and penalties that go to a human trafficking victims assistance fund—and new language so that society can better understand victims.
“These are not prostitutes. These are victims of abuse and exploitation. They’re children,” said Roswurm.