In 2004, 16 -year-old Cyntoia Brown was convicted for killing the man who bought her from her violent trafficker, likely with the intent to rape her, and sentenced to life in prison. Now more than a decade later, celebrities including Kim Kardashian and Rhianna are leading a national movement to set her free.
The particular facts of Brown’s case are horrific in their details. However, it is not unique that both child and adult victims of sex trafficking are regularly arrested and treated as criminals in America. As easy as it can be to focus on one horrible case of child sex trafficking, all victims of sex trafficking deserve policies that promote their freedom, respect their dignity and grant them access to positive life-changing resources.
A common ploy of sex traffickers is to tell their victims that, if they try to reach out for help, no one will believe them and they will be arrested. When we then arrest victims of sex trafficking, we fulfill the threats of the traffickers.
All victims of sex trafficking deserve policies that promote their freedom, respect their dignity, and grant them access to positive life-changing resources.
At FAIR Girls (a D.C.-based nonprofit I founded in 2004), we have served more than 1,000 girls and young women who experienced human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. Our transitional home for young women survivors has also provided safe housing to more than 100 survivors. Unlike the media stereotypes of sex trafficking victims, approximately 90% of the young women and girls we serve are American citizens, often trafficked by American citizen pimps. Approximately 90% of the girls we serve in the nation’s capital are girls of color and 20% identify as LGBTQ.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics from 1990 – 2010, 1,000 child victims of sex trafficking were arrested each year. One of these young victims was a 13-year-old Montgomery County, Maryland girl, "Madeline," who we served at FAIR Girls.
At 13, Madeline left a broken and abusive home of her own volition — 70 percent of our clients were in the child welfare system and 80 percent experienced homelessness prior to being trafficked — but, within 48 hours, she was lured from a bus station into the home of a sex trafficker posing as a father figure who offered her a false sense of protection that she missed after the death of her own father. Soon, she was forced to make $500 a night being raped by men who bought her just blocks from the nation’s capital. During the time she was there, no one reported her missing: She simply was at the mercy of her trafficker.
Sex trafficking is serial rape for profit. The average sex trafficking survivor at FAIR Girls reports that her exploitation began between the ages of 14- and 15-years-old. The girls and young women with whom we work tell us that, on average, that they were raped 5 times per night, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Our clients further report that they were exploited, on average, for four years before being connected to any social services. That is more than 150 rapes a month for girls who would normally be expected to attend high school, and 7,000 rapes before they receive any assistance as victims of trafficking, during when they might've otherwise have completed the requirements for a high school diploma.
Sex trafficking is serial rape for profit.
The man who was convicted of trafficking Madeline and other girls and young women, Shelby Lewis, was a registered foster parent who controlled the girls with weapons and the denial of food. A seasoned D.C. detective finally found young Madeline on the streets, which eventually led to Lewis's arrest, conviction and sentencing. (He received 20 years).
The average person might think that Madeline’s suffering would have ended after a man was convicted of trafficking her. Yet, instead of a chance to safely heal, Madeline was charged with prostitution and sent to a locked juvenile facility for five years.
Like Madeline, more than 50 percent of the young women and girls (aged 11 to 26) who come to us as survivors of sex trafficking also have arrests for a wide range of offenses that often include truancy, absconding or trespass. As juveniles, they are held in detention facilities while awaiting court, after which they are either returned home, placed in foster group homes or assigned to treatment facilities. If they have achieved the age of majority at the time of their arrest, even if they were exploited as teenagers and trafficked as young adults, they are often fined, jailed and thereby denied access to critical housing, jobs and public benefits.
When I met Madeline, she was living in a detention facility and about to be homeless. She needed a job, a place to live, a chance to get her GED and basic things like food, clothing and transportation. FAIR Girls was able to provide her with safe housing, legal advocacy, counseling and access to our 24/7 crisis response services. Her recovery path, like that of so many survivors, is slow and required dedicated and consistent services: Victims of sex trafficking suffer debilitating bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicidal thoughts at exponential rates.
Sadly, traffickers are very skilled at understanding the vulnerabilities of the young people they intend to traffic. They use false promises of love, family or a better life, employ cycles of affection followed by violence, sexual humiliation and shaming, threats to loved ones, denial of food or bathroom use, rape and the withholding emotional and physical intimacy for obedience. Traffickers often initiate a romantic or familial relationship with a vulnerable girl pushed out to the margins of our society, posing as a boyfriend or caring father figure, and then isolate the victim, rendering them economically dependent, homeless and emotionally vulnerable.
Victims of sex trafficking suffer debilitating bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicidal thoughts at exponential rates.
Sustained levels of heightened stress, instability and mental abuse can lead victims to feel powerless in the face of their trafficker; they are often unsure of who to trust or if the police will really help them. Experiences like Madeline’s demonstrate why those concerns can be well founded.
As a society, we can do better.
In 2014, the District of Columbia passed legislation to protect minor victims like Madeline from arrests for prostitution; as of September 2016, 15 states have passed similar legislation. In D.C., this legislation requires that law enforcement receive training on how to identify child victims of sex trafficking, and the number of child victims of sex trafficking identified and referred out of the criminal justice system to FAIR Girls alone has tripled in the past two years as a result.
In March, the D.C. Superior Court additionally launched a new court treatment program, HOPE Court, for sex trafficked youth in the court system. Until now, many exploited girls and boys were simply sent to the D.C. juvenile detention facility where punishment took precedent over prevention and services. HOPE Court will bring them to FAIR Girls and other core services providers to give them the help they need to recover and stay free from future abuse. In just 10 months, our sole youth case manager has provided 77 unique services to child victims of commercial exploitation who were referred through the D.C. Superior Court to FAIR Girls.
Many exploited girls and boys are simply sent to a juvenile detention facility where punishment takes precedent over prevention and services.
These are all steps toward serving child victims of sex trafficking. However, like in most communities, there is little to no specialized housing for child victims of sex trafficking and service providers like FAIR Girls often struggle to provide the deep level of care each young survivors need.
Madeline has chosen to utilize her trauma and past to help other girls: She has testified before D.C. City Council, shared her story with the U.S. Senate and with national media and advocated for better policies, like Safe Harbor, and support for young victims of sex trafficking.
We have made steps in the right direction towards serving child victims of sex trafficking in a trauma-informed and meaningful way. However, for these life-saving programs to work effectively, they must be consistently and properly funded. For example, in most communities, there is little, if any, specialized services or housing options for child victims of sex trafficking and service providers like FAIR Girls often struggle financially to provide the deep level of care each young survivor needs.
Madeline’s strength is awe-inspiring. Yet, I can’t help but wonder what her life would be like had she received safe housing and care instead of jail, all those years ago as a 13-year-old sex trafficking victim in America.