Legal Options For Child Sex Trafficking Victims

The sex trafficking of children and teens is a major – but largely overlooked – problem in the United States. Every day, vulnerable youths are lured into years of sex slavery by traffickers. Yet trafficking victims who attempt to inform the authorities risk being arrested themselves – despite laws designed to protect them.

Brian Kent “When law enforcement and the criminal justice system discourage trafficked children from coming forward through unwarranted arrests, they may be contributing to the underground nature of child sex trafficking.”

— Brian Kent, Esq.

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Though it’s common knowledge that a number of developing nations are struggling with the problem of child sex trafficking, many American citizens might be surprised to know that it’s also a serious, longstanding issue in the US, one that has grown exponentially with the rise of the Internet.

With social media and other online technologies, it’s easier than ever for traffickers and pedophiles to covertly locate and engage with vulnerable children. Tragically, many children are being lured or coerced into sexual abuse and various forms of sex slavery without parents, schools, and law enforcement ever guessing it’s happening.

young man and woman
Victims of sex trafficking often suffer from horrendous emotional, psychological, and physical trauma, and are unable to break free from the vicious cycle of abuse perpetrated by their captors without outside intervention.

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Even after escaping or being rescued from trafficking and related “industries” like child pornography, many survivors aren’t able to attain justice against their abusers and find the support they need to recover from their experiences, even when they manage to help get the criminals convicted. Thankfully, legal options for trafficking survivors seem to be growing, as demonstrated by several recent breakthrough cases in civil litigation against sex traffickers and institutions that support trafficking.

Child Trafficking Victims Protected By Law

One of the reasons why trafficked children hesitate to get help from law enforcement is the fear of being arrested for prostitution, even though they’re the victims of the crime. Outrageously, it was only until very recently, in 2000, when the comprehensive Trafficking Victims Protection Act was passed to protect trafficking victims from prosecution, and it was common for police to arrest trafficked youth for engaging in prostitution, without figuring out that it was forced on them.

Even with these laws, trafficked minors are still being arrested—about 1000 were arrested in 2010, one study estimates—10 years after the protective laws were already in place. Trafficking survivor advocates emphasize in their work that persecution of victims needs to stop—it makes no sense to punish the victim of a crime, and doing so also causes the problem to stay underground. They also maintain that trafficked children should not be referred to as “prostitutes,” a term that suggests free will in choosing sex work, which is not the case in trafficking.

How Traffickers Enslave Children Into Prostitution

Detectives and other professionals investigating child sex trafficking cases note that they’ve observed distinct patterns to how sex traffickers typically operate:

Targeting the Vulnerable

Traffickers often target children that seem especially vulnerable or isolated, taking advantage of these characteristics to help gain victims’ trust, cut them off from friends and family who might be able to protect them, and pull them into doing things they’re uncomfortable with.

For example, children who seem shy, lonely, or ill-at-ease in public may be at significant risk for trafficking, especially if they’re often seen spending time alone. Children with difficult home lives–such as those with dysfunctional, abusive, or neglectful families–are also at risk, as well as those whose families are suffering economically.

Employing a Peer “Recruiter”

Initial contact with a potential trafficking victim is frequently made through a “recruiter” hired by the trafficker, usually someone of the same sex as the targeted child and around the same age, so that the child will feel more comfortable with and receptive to them. The “recruiter” may befriend would-be victims and spend a lot of time with them, sometimes introducing recreational drugs or sexual practices to them, using peer pressure and other similar forces to make these acts seem normal or “cool.”

Eventually, the recruiter may actively involve victims in prostitution by bringing them to see “customers” or having them meet the people who orchestrate the trafficking operation.

Offering Support And Work

Many trafficking victims, in need of money, work, or a place to stay, are initially pulled into the system through false or misleading advertisements or invitations for jobs or some other seemingly legitimate opportunity for work. Again, “recruiters” may be used to lure the victim.

Ensnaring Victims Through “Relationships”

Another common tactic traffickers use is to establish a bond with victims that resembles a romantic relationship, showering them with attention, affection, and lavish gifts. At first, traffickers may conceal all inklings of their true intentions, making victims believe the relationship is heartfelt and normal , but later, manipulate them into performing sex acts as favors, using guilt or withholding of affection as leverage.

When victims have a strong emotional attachment to the trafficker exploiting them, it’s especially difficult for them to escape–not only do they have conflicting feelings about leaving in general despite the suffering they must endure, they’re often unwilling to expose the abuser’s crimes to the authorities.

Threats & Violence

A predator may threaten a child’s life or the lives and well-being of the child’s family in order to force them to do their bidding. Also common are threats regarding telling secrets to a child’s family members or peer groups to publicly humiliate them.

When these threats fail to intimidate the child, the trafficker may resort to using physical violence, withholding of food and other basic needs, or imprisonment.

You can learn more about common tactics employed by sex traffickers in ensnaring victims from the San Diego Tribune.

Technology Facilitates Child Sex Trafficking

According to researchers at the THORN Project, about 63% of child sex trafficking survivors report having been advertised online. Unfortunately, the Internet provides ideal grounds for traffickers, allowing them to easily and anonymously target unsuspecting minors online in various sinister ways:

  • Posing as another minor. It’s a common tactic for traffickers to reach out to teens and children through social media while pretending to be in their peer group to gain their trust. After the victim has formed a bond with them, they start making inappropriate requests or ask to meet in person.
  • Blackmail using embarrassing or explicit images. Also termed “sextortion,” child traffickers and pornographers may obtain personal information or images to use for threatening their victims into compliance and submission. Sometimes children are manipulated or intimidated into taking graphic images of themselves and sending them to the predator; other times, these images are obtained without the child’s knowledge, through hacking techniques or remote control of the child’s webcam or other capture device.

Recent Lawsuits Hold Businesses Responsible

Several recent lawsuits are setting precedents for holding businesses liable for supporting child sex trafficking:

Backpage.com Scandal. A number of victims have filed a civil lawsuit against the administrators behind Backpage.com, an online directory website that offers users free classified ads. According to the plaintiffs, the business was negligent in allowing a large number of child sex traffickers to run listings advertising underage girls in the “escorts” section of the website. Though the Backpage.com management attempted to address the problem by completely removing the escort section, but the plaintiffs say that the company turned a blind eye when the traffickers simply re-categorized their listings as “dating” ads.

Roosevelt Motel Case. In a “first of its kind” civil lawsuit, the Roosevelt Motel in North Philadelphia was accused in 2014 of permitting sex traffickers to “pimp out” a 14-year-old girl in one of its rooms. The girl’s sexual slavery in the motel, during which she was raped and sexually abused by about 100 men, lasted for 2 years, according to the complaint.  The lawsuit is one of the first to be filed under a newly-passed state law that enables trafficking victims to file suit against motels, hotels, and other similar businesses where traffickers operate.

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