Fighting Sex Trafficking Is Harder Than It Seems

More than half the states have passed laws to protect victims, but the laws aren’t always enforced and often produce new challenges.
by | January 2017
(Photos by David Kidd)

When a young teen named Anjelique ran away from her home near San Francisco last summer, her trauma didn’t end when police eventually found her. Instead, while her distraught mother and grandmother posted “missing child” fliers all over the East Bay area, police took Anjelique to an Alameda County social services assessment center in Hayward. Before police take troubled youths home, they often bring them there to receive counseling and services.

But 12-year-old Anjelique only stayed one night. That’s because sex traffickers were using the assessment center as a recruitment base. Anjelique befriended another teenage girl in the center, who convinced her to leave. Together, they walked just a few minutes up the seedy commercial strip in Hayward to a budget motel. Once there, Anjelique was put to work.

As a means of controlling her, her mother said, Anjelique’s traffickers got her hooked on heroin. As part of an investigation into her story, a local news crew visited the motel where Anjelique unwittingly entered the sex trafficking trade. Filmed one night this past summer, the news video shows young women arriving early in the evening while others linger in the doorways of rooms or on the balcony outside. Throughout the night, men come in and out of the rooms; other men whisk the girls away in cars, bringing them back a few hours later.

Anjelique eventually escaped, and at the time of the news story, was spending time in drug rehab for her addiction.

Anjelique’s story may sound sensational, but in the world of child sex trafficking, it’s painfully normal. Traffickers seek out vulnerable, unhappy teens -- like runaways. Juvenile detention facilities or social services centers such as the one in Hayward are prime recruiting grounds. Sometimes, young women already in the trade become recruiters themselves, approaching other vulnerable girls and offering them what seems like an exciting life. The new recruit comprehends the full reality of her new situation too late. Readily available drugs help numb the pain.

It’s a pattern that’s repeated every day in cities across the world. It’s helped fuel a global industry that researchers estimate generates some $51 billion to $99 billion annually, and it’s created a hidden epidemic affecting hundreds of thousands of children in the U.S. alone. In Alameda County, where Anjelique’s case occurred, District Attorney Nancy O’Malley has aggressively prosecuted child sex trafficking cases. As of 2012, Alameda accounted for 46 percent of all cases prosecuted under California’s human trafficking statute. Now other counties, O’Malley says, are starting to take these cases as seriously as Alameda County has.

Progress is slow. That’s because in California and elsewhere, the real struggle in combating trafficking is in changing how the justice system treats the victims of the sex trade. Until recently, victims were seen as law-breaking prostitutes, and law enforcement dealt with them accordingly. That’s starting to change. Alameda County has established “girls’ courts” as a way of focusing on treatment rather than jail time, an idea that Los Angeles County has since implemented as well. State money has been directed to child welfare services to craft a specialized treatment program for survivors. Alameda County is one of the few in the country receiving funding to develop a pilot program of safe houses to shelter trafficked kids and help rehabilitate them.

The shift from viewing kids selling sex as willing prostitutes to looking at them as victims in a larger crime ring began back in 2000, with the passage of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which defined human trafficking, victims and methods of prosecution. But that law -- and many people at the time -- mainly looked at trafficking as an issue of smuggling foreign nationals. It noted that 50,000 women and children are trafficked into the United States each year and that current laws fail to protect victims because they “are often illegal immigrants.” Still, the federal action spurred and helped fund more research. And from that work emerged an uncomfortable fact: Most victims of sex trafficking, as now defined in the law, are born on American soil.

In the years since then, hundreds of laws in dozens of states have been passed to address specific aspects of sex trafficking and the exploitation of children. California last year joined 17 other states that make all minors immune from prosecution for prostitution. Some 28 states have enacted so-called safe-harbor laws, which say that trafficked children should be treated as victims and be diverted from the justice system to appropriate services. Beginning with New York in 2010, half of all states now have a law that allows someone who committed a crime while being trafficked the opportunity to get it wiped from their record.

The flurry of state legislation is important, supporters say. But a new law is only the first step; implementation is much harder. “They have stopped being invisible children, at least here,” says O’Malley. “But, candidly, the law enforcement community is still trying to get training, trying to figure out how to implement the laws that have been passed to help these kids.”

In other words, Alameda County, despite being one of the most active jurisdictions in the country on this issue, is still waiting to see real change. That’s true across the country, says Meredith Dank, the lead author of a 2010 Urban Institute report that made more than a dozen policy recommendations for cities and counties combating human trafficking. “We’ve been talking about a victim-centered approach for a very, very long time,” she says. But “there isn’t really the evidence to show that we’re taking that, because we are still arresting so many [young women].”

Tina Frundt was one of those young women. For her, being a victim of the sex trade didn’t just leave psychological scars, it left her with a rap sheet that included assault and prostitution. A young kid who grew up in the foster care system in Chicago, she was adopted at age 12. Soon after, she met a man 15 years her senior, who showered her with attention and gifts. He told her he understood her. Frundt thought she fell in love with him.

He convinced her to join him and his family in Cleveland, and at the age of 14, Frundt ran away with him. But in Cleveland, she found his “family” was actually a sex ring, run by the man’s grandmother. Frundt was told she had to do her part. She was repeatedly raped and forced to meet a $500-a-night quota. When she didn’t, she was beaten.

A year after arriving in Cleveland, she was arrested in a police raid. But juvenile detention provided no real respite. “Jail’s not safe,” Frundt says today, more than 20 years later. “I picked up six charges of assault while I was there. Other girls are in there trying to get you to go to their pimp.”

After her release, she was left to deal with the mental and physical scars on her own. It was too tall an order for a teenager, and she fell back into the same situation with the man and his family. “First you need to escape your own mind, right?” she says. “I didn’t exit [his scheme] until my late 20s.”

Frundt now works with other survivors at a safe house she founded in Washington, D.C., and she helps train law enforcement officers through her position on area task forces and the White House’s Advisory Council on Human Trafficking. She says one of the biggest parts of her job is changing people’s perception that young women have a choice in these sex trafficking schemes. Pop culture tends to portray prostitutes as willing sex workers, or perhaps even as dominant women in total control over their male clients. Pimps, meanwhile, are either treated as a joke -- think of the number of cartoony pimp costumes for sale every Halloween -- or glorified in pop music. In some cases, thanks in part to shows like MTV’s “Pimp My Ride,” the word has become aspirational. To combat those perceptions, advocacy groups across the country have launched awareness campaigns in recent years. They’ve sponsored billboards and bus stop ads that say things like, “Buying a teen for sex is child abuse.” “Turning a blind eye is neglect.” And, “Teens sold for sex aren’t prostitutes. They’re rape victims.”

Tina Frundt

As public sentiment has shifted, so have state laws, culminating in the 18 states that now ban minors from being arrested for prostitution. But laws like those present a new challenge: If police can’t lock up youths involved in prostitution, what can they do? At the very least, detaining child prostitutes is a way to temporarily remove them from a bad situation. True, jail time comes with its own traumas, as it did for Frundt. But in California, for example, the problem now is that the state doesn’t have the right infrastructure to treat and rehabilitate victims. Child welfare is responsible for responding to them, but the system doesn’t yet have a specific treatment plan in place. Nor is there a network of safe houses to send victims for treatment. The smattering of religious facilities and privately run centers isn’t enough.

Actually reaching the kids who need help can be a challenge too, as Minnesota has learned. Lawmakers there chose to enact a three-year waiting period after eliminating the charge of prostitution for children in 2011. Officials used that time to develop a comprehensive service response model for victims. The first year, legislators funded training of law enforcement and the creation of statewide protocols. The following two years saw about $2 million in funding for creating specialized tracts within existing social and health services that treat survivors. The efforts have made Minnesota the leader in terms of developing a holistic approach to treating survivors.

But on implementation in 2014, health officials ran into another problem. If police stop picking up kids selling sex, how can potential victims find the services available to them? Officials realized they needed to think about outreach in a different way, and started relying more on survivor and youth voices to help them get their message across. “‘Victim’ is a very loaded term when you’re approaching these youths,” says Lauren Ryan, director of Safe Harbor Minnesota. “We have to meet them where they’re at, and that means recognizing the other ways they might present, like running away, drug abuse, a violent relationship. Those are the ways they show up as opposed to exploitation.”

Police still play a vital role, say Ryan and others, because they should be approaching potential prostitution victims in much the same way they handle anyone they suspect is in an abusive relationship -- communicating with them and connecting them to available services and support. But it can be extremely difficult for that attitude to take root among officers.

Maryland, for example, set up a human trafficking task force a decade ago that trains police to focus on going after the traffickers rather than the prostitutes. But the numbers suggest officers have been slow to change. In Baltimore, a hub for trafficking, a University of Maryland newspaper’s analysis of FBI data showed that from 2008 to 2012, city police made about 800 prostitution arrests each year. In 2013 and 2014, the city only charged a total of 10 suspects with sex trafficking; prosecutors wound up dropping the charges in eight of the cases.

It’s an ongoing process, says Iona Rudisill, a state task force member and lead forensic interviewer at the Baltimore Child Abuse Center. Police in the state are still allowed to arrest youths for prostitution, but the training they’ve received from the task force in recent years has urged them to take their detainees to child welfare services instead of jail. Part of the challenge for police, says Rudisill, is being able to pick up on signals that might suggest a child is a victim of trafficking -- things like dealing drugs or skipping school. “Many survivors have been stopped and, just because of the [antagonistic] way they were treated by law enforcement, they didn’t speak up,” she says. “What you see on the surface might not be what’s actually going on behind closed doors.”

Behind closed doors, the picture often gets complicated. The social situations that drive many young girls into prostitution are often the same factors that drive men into trafficking. In many cases, traffickers grow up with exploitation as a family business. It becomes normalized and often looks like a safer career than drug trafficking. One 45-year-old African-American man, now in prison, told the Urban Institute’s Dank about when he realized as a child that his aunt, who lived with his family, was a sex worker. At the age of 5, he started noticing men coming and going all the time. “One night, I saw [what was going on] and asked,” the man said, as quoted in the institute’s report. “She said, ‘The clothes on your back, the apartment, this is how I pay the rent.’ I had nothing but love for my auntie. … Then my sister and my momma did it. It’s been in the family. My uncle and father were pimps.”

According to the institute’s interviews with 73 incarcerated individuals, mostly men, roughly a third started pimping through a family member. Two-thirds were black. More than two-thirds had completed a high school education or even taken some college courses. Four of those interviewed had a college degree.

It’s evidence, says Dank, that the new state laws and new law enforcement techniques will only go so far. Demonizing sex traffickers may not be the most effective way to curtail the trade. “We have taken this issue of human trafficking and put it in black-and-white terms: ‘These individuals are monsters,’” she says. “We don’t necessarily look at the full picture of what the push-pull factors are for the victim and the perpetrator.” In other words, if governments really want to address sex trafficking, they’ll have to start focusing on prevention -- and that’s a lot harder.

There are other shortcomings with current legislation, say Dank and others, even with the most victim-oriented laws. So far, all the laws address minors; the day a 17-year-old in sex trafficking turns 18, he or she loses most legal protections and is seen by the law as a criminal. Legislation is also largely focused on young women, but boys and transgender teens are being trafficked as well, and they tend to present differently and thus require different training and social and health services. Beyond that, much of the recent lawmaking on trafficking has targeted the sex industry, but labor trafficking and domestic servitude are also billion-dollar industries, and they can be even harder to build a case against.

For now, most governments are in the nascent stages of recalibrating their approach -- if this issue is on their radar at all. Officials universally say that awareness and training are the most important things they can do to start changing the mindset, and that survivors must play a key role in outreach. They hope more legislation and money for resources will then follow. It’s a process akin to the emergence of drug courts in the 1990s. Back then, county and state governments began to recognize that habitual drug offenders might not be in control of their choices, and that locking them away probably won’t solve the problem. Two decades later, governments are realizing that young girls and boys selling sex might not be doing so by choice either, and that the traditional ways of responding to them may do more harm than good.

For victims’ advocates on the front lines, the pace of change has been frustratingly slow. “Human trafficking has always been in existence. All it did was change names,” says Rudisill. “It’s been ‘slavery,’ it’s been ‘human bondage.’ The Emancipation Proclamation was supposed to stop it from happening here. But it didn’t stop -- we know this. It just changed faces.”