|Training attendees, Janine Moore and Emily Hueman traveled to the conference from Ramsey County in Minnesota.|
More than 200 people from 14 states attended training on the sex trafficking of minors, at Portland's Embassy Suites Hotel, Oct. 4 and 5. Entitled, "Do you know Lacy?" the training highlighted the stories of girls who suffer victimization in the commercial sex industry. It also repeated controversial --and disputed -- statistics on the size of the problem.
Shared Hope International, a nonprofit started by Linda Smith, a former Washington congresswoman, offered the training to prosecutors, law enforcement personnel, youth service providers and community advocates.
The aim? To educate more people to recognize how and why U.S. children are forced into prostitution. And to build community efforts to reduce demand, prevent child trafficking and hold traffickers accountable.
"I just curl up inside when I hear the term child prostitute," Smith told attendees. "It's the only crime, where the victim of the crime is labeled with the crime and then she's put in jail. That's not right."
That's true in many parts of the country, although in Multnomah County, girls are not put in jail, but instead are recognized as victims. Anyone over 18, however, can be prosecuted for prostitution.
Elizabeth Scaife, director of training for the nonprofit, said sex trafficking is poorly understood. The majority of girls involved in commercial sex industry are targeted, groomed and controlled by pimps.
Traffickers manipulate child victims by destroying their sense of self and self-worth and preying on misplaced feelings of loyalty, as well as through violence and the fear of violence. The combination of dependence on a pimp and fear of law enforcement keep girls in abusive situations and silent about their plight.
"Kids are victims — period," Scaife said. "If you're under 18 and you're involved in the commercial sex industry, you're automatically a victim ... Because they are children we know that they are not psychologically developed enough to make an adult consensual decision, understanding the full consequences for their life, when they are involved in the commercial sex industry."
In 2005-6 Shared Hope worked with 10 sex trafficking task forces across the United States, to investigate the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Smith said she chose three cities: Las Vegas, because of its long association with the commercial sex trade; Washington DC because the city hosts visitors from countries where sex with girls is accepted: and Atlanta, which holds the most conventions in the United States.
FBI investigators sent undercover buyers into the trade to learn more about the men who buy sex from minors, the people who transport girls or facilitate child prostitution, and the traffickers – or pimps – who profit from the trade. Smith said she found that girls just like her granddaughters were being bought and sold.
"The harder thing as we got out there and I started getting information back was that the buyer was not a tourist from another country. He was an ordinary guy in America. So, ordinary guys are driving demand for somebody else's daughter in their own communities."
|The Skanner News originally posted a video of Elizabeth Scaife citing the disputed figures and making the false claim that there are "a million men a day purchasing a sex act with a child in this nation."|
The Skanner News refused to remove the video because we believe Shared Hope should be accountable for the information they distribute at their trainings.
Scaife managed to persuade YouTube to remove it on privacy grounds.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that at least 100,000 minors are victimized every year in America's commercial sex industry, Scaife said. Girls rescued from traffickers report being compelled to service 5-10 clients a day.
"That's a million men a day purchasing a sex act with a child in this nation," she said. "That's shocking."
The figures cited are shocking, but they can't be considered accurate, according to David Finkelhor, a researcher with the Crimes Against Children Research Center, and an acknowledged expert. Finkelhor says the 100,000 figure, cited by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is simply a "guesstimate."
Asked if the evidence supports the idea that a million men a day seek sex from juveniles, Finkelhor said,
"Whoa! This is speculation upon speculation."
After his work was used inaccurately in a much-cited but flawed study, Finkelhor created a fact sheet on juveniles trafficked into prostitution.
To read the factsheet and learn why most statistics cited are likely inaccurate click here (pdf download 300K)
"Unfortunately, there are no credible or supported estimates of the problem," the fact sheet says.
Finkelhor notes that nationwide, the number of girls involved in sex trafficking who were taken into custody by law enforcement in 2003 was 1,400.
"No-one believes this estimate fully characterizes the problem," the fact sheet says, yet "this is among the most recent and clearly defined of the estimates and counters the assumption that all the estimates are large."
Finkelhor also says it is false that the average age of entry into the commercial sex trade is 13. Shared Hope says their age range, 12-14, came from interviews with children rescued from trafficking, and represents the average age of children victimized by traffickers. However, no study has determined the average age of entry into prostitution. The Skanner News' Brian Stimson reported on the difficulty of finding good data in 2010. And Nikole Hannah Jones debunked the flawed statistics for The Oregonian in 2011.
Scaife says Shared Hope stands behind her 100,000 figure, because it was cited by Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. She acknowledges that all figures are estimates, but says law enforcement arrests don't begin to capture the problem. Nevada, for example, prosecutes pimps for kidnapping because the penalties are greater. And other states charge kids with status offenses, such as truancy or loitering, which doesn't capture the reality of trafficking.
What everyone can agree on is that any number of trafficked children is too many. With the goal of ending demand for trafficked minors, Shared Hope has launched a program, called 'Defenders,' which asks men to sign a pledge not to participate in "pornography, prostitution or any form of the commercial sex industry."
Shared Hope would like to see a host of changes to state laws, and through Protected Innocence Challenge, it has rated each state. Oregon got a D rating, while Washington was rated a B.
The nonprofit is pushing to standardize human trafficking laws across the country. Among the laws it recommends are: increased penalties for men who buy sex from minors, including requiring them to register as sex offenders; and increased penalties for using the Internet to solicit or prostitute a minor.
Several Portland gang outreach workers attended the training. They say traffickers commonly get to know girls through social media sites, such as Facebook and Flirt.com.
|Detective Bill Woolf of Fairfax County police in Virginia, spoke about the national picture on gangs and sex trafficking|
Detective Bill Woolf, from Fairfax County Police gang investigations unit in Virginia, said criminal gangs have increasingly entered the commercial sex industry, because it isn't difficult to find and control vulnerable girls.
"Girls are a renewable resource," Woolf said, pointing out that traffickers can sell girls many times over. "The other thing is, if I want to get into narcotics trafficking business, then I have to have cash up front," he said. "I have to front the money for the drugs; I have to bring the drugs in. I have to turn around, package them and sell them. There's a lot of work involved in that. But if I want to do sex trafficking then all I have to do is find a girl, turn her out. Boom. Done. There is no overhead cost to that."
This article was corrected Oct. 8. Information about trafficking statistics and a response from Shared Hope were added.