If you think child sex trafficking doesn't occur in your neck of the woods, you're not alone.
On a ride-along with a Seattle police officer, Washington Representative Tina Orwall (D) was shocked to see what looked to be 13- and 14-year-old girls on street corners being trafficked for sex.
"He showed me a side of our community I had never seen," she says.
When Alabama Representative Jack Williams (R) tried to introduce legislation in 2009 to combat sex trafficking in the northern part of his state and along Interstate 20, it didn't get far. "Nobody was against it," he says, "but people said it just didn't happen here, that it only happens in big cities."
Even Minnesota Senator Sandy Pappas (D), who's worked on the issue for 10 years, was surprised when police arrested traffickers at what she describes as her "next-door neighbor"--a downtown St. Paul hotel connected by a skyway to her condo.
A 15-year-old girl from Iowa had been held against her will and forced into prostitution there. "She'd been there for a week, with men coming and going," Pappas says. "Nobody reported it. Finally, the girl got to a phone and called police. This is a business hotel where people come to do training at local corporations or attend conferences. Right in the heart of downtown St. Paul."
Everywhere, Out of Sight
No part of the country is immune from sex trafficking, and girls and boys as young as 9 years old of every race, socioeconomic class and sexual orientation are at risk. Children are bought and sold for sex in big cities and at truck stops, in small rural communities and at suburban strip malls, in upper-middleclass counties and at major sporting events like the Super Bowl. And then there's the internet. One estimate puts the number of child pornography websites at 20 million.
Trafficking is a "multimillion-dollar industry," says Washington Assistant Attorney General Farshad Talebi. Traffickers operate on circuits that span whole regions of the country. "What we're seeing are gangs and drug dealers shifting to selling girls because, one, it's more lucrative and, two, it's less risky," says Talebi, who heads Washington's Commercially Sexually Exploited Children Statewide Coordinating Committee.
It's less risky because fewer law enforcement officials are dedicated to investigating and prosecuting sex trafficking than are working on other crimes. But that's changing at both the federal and state levels as legislators are enacting laws addressing the problem on several fronts, from mandating tougher penalties for traffickers to providing counseling and a range of services to the young victims.
Traffickers especially target vulnerable children who have been abused, have dropped out of school, are homeless, or are gay or lesbian. Some are "teenagers who are just a little lost," as Pappas puts it. Their average age is 13.
Statistics are hard to pin down, but estimates, which vary widely, start at about 100,000 children trafficked for sex annually in the country. At a congressional hearing in 2015, Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes put the number at about 2 million.
In an April 2016 congressional report, "The National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction," the U.S. Department of Justice called the total number of children affected "immeasurable," due to "misidentification of juveniles as adults, varied classification of criminal incidents by law enforcement and extra measures taken by traffickers to ensure juveniles are not contacted by law enforcement."
"Child sex trafficking is one of the most complex forms of child sexual exploitation," the report says. "Victims frequently fall prey to traffickers who lure them in with an offer of food...