At 13 years old a girl in the United States is in 7th or 8th grade. At 13 she’s frequently right at that transition between being a kid, and a young adult. A study conducted by Shared Hope International says 13-years-old is also the average age of *entry* into prostitution.
“Do you know Lacy?,” Linda Smith asks, “I think you do, if you have a child, a grandchild, because every one of them is vulnerable.” Smith is the founder and president of Shared Hope International. “Lacy” is the name Smith says she uses to put a face on the statistics about domestic minor sex trafficking.
Shared Hope International is a non-profit, Christian organization started by Smith in the late 1990’s. She had been a Congresswoman representing the state of Washington when a trip to India to witness first-hand the sexual trafficking of children prompted her to start the organization. After a few years working internationally she was told to look in her own backyard. The problem wasn’t just in foreign countries, and it wasn’t only foreign women and girls being brought to the states for sexual slavery.
Smith said at least 100,000 American children are used for sex trafficking each year.
“When we finished the research on America for the Department of Justice, and I came to the executive conclusions, I was to come up with what the vulnerability factors were. And I show the top vulnerability factor was she was female, she was American, and she simply was a girl,” Smith said.
She said the average age of the 100,00 children being trafficked is 14. A Training held by Shared Hope at Flathead Valley Community College brought together police officers, social workers, teachers, juvenile justice workers, youth group leaders, and community members.
Trafficking Survivor Amira Birger shared her story with the group. It starts with sexual assault at 6 years old, followed by continuous molestation. As she hit her teens she was in and out of home and drug use before being co-opted into a prostitution ring fronting as a massage parlor at 16 years old. She finally broke away after a particularly vicious assault.
“When I was leaving, and trying to get out the door, he handed me a check for 200 dollars made out to the massage parlor. So, he had sent me over- he had paid to rape me, and beat me, and everything else he did that night,” Birger said she returned home first, but soon ran away again.
“Because I had so much shame, and so much anxiety about what had just happened to me, and I didn’t really think that what had just happened was anything more than my fault. And so, I didn’t think I was a victim of sex trafficking. I thought- and please excuse my language. The way I felt is that I was a dirty little whore and that’s what I deserved,” Birger said.
One of the big messages coming out of the training is how girls are labeled. Smith says once the term “prostitute” is used, the girl ceases being seen as a victim.
“We have a culture where we’ve called a prostituted child a prostitute,” Smith said. “So, the biggest challenge, and not too big of an obstacle, is to understand that a child in commercial sex of prostitution, pornography, or performance, is a traffick victim under the federal law, and to some extent, the Montana law. And that we need to treat these girls as victims.”
Sergeant John Chapman of the Vancouver, Washington Police Department says young girls are often recruited by older men who start off as boyfriends.
“So, now she’s fallen in love with him, and then comes the day that he asks her, ‘I need you to do this for me,’ and that’s going to come in a lot of different ways. You know, it may be, like Lacy in the video mentioned – ‘I’ve just got this hardship that’s come along, I just lost my cars my house, all my money,’ and again, she’s 13 years old, and she loves him, what’s she going to do- ‘well, how can I help,’” Chapman said.
Shared Hope released report cards last December that grade each state on how its laws cover domestic minor sex trafficking. Montana received an “F”. Half the states in the country did. The report card looks at whether states have a law criminalizing minor sex trafficking, if states punish the trafficker and those who aid the trafficker, how stringent the penalties are for buyers, if protection and compensation is provided for victims, and what tools or laws exist for police officers and prosecutors to use.
Smith says states are just starting to take action and change the way laws frequently punish the victim and provide no clear path out. Survivor Amira Birger is making her story into a happy ending. She’s been married for 8-years, has four children, will graduate with her Associates Degree next month and head off to college on a full ride scholarship in the fall. She’s also an advocate, working with other victims of trafficking.
“This isn’t like a simple fix,” Birger said “you can’t just meet them and then give them these services and expect that they’re going to jump on the bandwagon. It’s a long process and all of this abuse has happened in relationships and community, and so all of their healing needs to happen through relationships and community.”
Shared Hope International says raising awareness throughout the community is the first step. The next is action through people watching for warning signs, and laws to prosecute the predators.