I am here today representing Paul & Lisa to provide testimony on domestic human trafficking. The statistics are frightening but there are human stories behind every number. These are the tragic stories we see every day at The Paul & Lisa Program.
Trafficking of human beings is on the rise despite anti-slavery conventions and American laws such as the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. Victims are transported across the United States by “sex-for-profit” groups and then integrated into the commercial sex industry. Traffickers look for vulnerable children in malls, on the Internet, in fast food restaurants, in arcades – anywhere kids congregate. The Paul & Lisa Program remains committed to providing prevention and assistance to the victims but continued support from the private sector and government is still needed.
A University of Pennsylvania study suggests there are 300 thousand children working as prostitutes in the United States. To understand and combat this issue I’d like to convey how the landscape of human trafficking has changed.
The Paul and Lisa Program marked its 25th anniversary this year. A lot has changed in the last quarter century. We’re facing new demons now; armed with new weaponry. Twenty five years ago we didn’t have sexual predators entering our children’s bedrooms through the Internet; we didn’t have television programs with explicit sexual content aimed at younger viewers; we didn’t have violence in our music lyrics like we see in today’s popular rap music. Sexual predators today are bolder and smarter than they were 25 years ago. We have a proliferation of addictive drugs in our small towns like we’ve never seen before.
Human trafficking is a huge and profitable business. What is sometimes called the “oldest profession” is now the most vicious. Much of the sex business is tied to organized crime and gangs. For the victims it’s a business of virtual slavery. And the victims are getting younger. In 1990 the average age of prostitutes we’d see at Paul & Lisa was 16. Now we see them as young as 9.
The traffickers and pimps have become much more sophisticated. They’re making use of today’s technology by trolling for younger victims in Internet chat rooms. According to a 2001 Pew Study, 89% of sexual solicitations were made in either chat rooms or via Instant Messages.
Traffickers are savvy business people and they aren’t all men. Many are women. Pimps aren’t always the “gold chain-clad” older man we used to be able to identify. These days many traffickers look like an ordinary business person and some of them are by day. We’re also seeing a proliferation of younger pimps – as young as 16.
Like any good businessperson, traffickers of today have multi-faceted businesses. Many live in one house with their victims and provide a multitude of sex services ranging from prostitution, pornography, phone sex, drug dealing, escort services, massage parlors and nude dancing.
Traffickers are getting harder to catch because often they don’t operate out of one city. Many take a van full of women and travel throughout the country. A typical starting point for recruitment is Vermont with its small towns. The victims are then taken to prostitute in the streets of Boston, Hartford, New York City, Atlantic City, Washington, DC and Atlanta. During the height of the Miami tourist season, the group travels south. Next they head west to Las Vegas to take advantage of the influx of tourists for major events like “Fight Nights.” This situation makes capturing the traffickers difficult but it also hinders the opportunity for rehabilitation for the victims. Rehab is a lengthy process. In years past we knew at which street corner to find our victim and could provide daily outreach and counseling. Now, we might only work with a victim for a few weeks before she is taken to another city by her pimp.
Traffickers are no longer demons of the big city. They’re infiltrating the small towns of America. Seventy percent of the Paul & Lisa victims we see are from upper-middle class families living in rural areas. These young people are more vulnerable to exploitation and less “street-wise” than their city peers. The traffickers reel their victims in with drugs or promises of a more glamorous life. Once traffickers have a victim, they often threaten harm to the victims’ families if they attempt escape. Soon the victims become dependent on their pimps for the basic necessities of life: food, clothing, money. Sometimes they become emotionally tied to their captor, believing the victimizer is their only link to survival. Out of fear, they remain loyal to the person they fear most. Out of shame, they can’t go home.
In rural areas the police, parents, hospital and social workers have had virtually no training on the danger signs of trafficking and the pimps know it. I interviewed one pimp who said, “Small town cops are easy. There aren’t many and they don’t even know we’re there.” We need to provide more education and training. Clearly, knowledge is power in this instance. Training should include mandatory safety education programs to begin at the Middle School level. These programs are entirely different than Sex Education programs. The curriculum would include training on safe internet usage, warning signs of a trafficker’s presence, the role of drugs in commercial exploitation and the consequences of running away. The Paul & Lisa Program currently has a model court program as well as a school education program. Both have been extremely well received.
Our Paul & Lisa Street Outreach Team is headed by Lisa Grahn. On the streets Lisa and her team foster an environment of trust and provide support to many victims. Over the years we’ve brought hundreds of victims into the safety pipeline where they received much-needed social services. One of the problems we face, however, is a bureaucratic one. Social Service programs only provide immediate support to victims with ID. Victims of traffickers are usually always without a birth certificate or social security card. Without identification it sometimes takes months to provide medical, psychiatric or educational support to these victims. We need to provide support immediately if we’re going to make a difference.
The landscape of trafficking has indeed changed. We cannot ignore the devastating consequences to our nation’s young people. With proper education and training we can reduce the number of victims. With programs like Paul & Lisa and access to social services, there is hope for these victims to become stable, contributing members of their communities.