The FBI, law enforcement agencies across the country and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children deserve high praise for rescuing 105 young people forced into prostitution. The three-day sweep in 76 cities across 47 FBI divisions nationwide resulted in the arrest of 159 alleged pimps.
It was the seventh such sweep in a decade, and emphasizes the need for Congress to pass legislation that would protect young people – the latest victims ranged in age from 13 to 17 with almost all of them girls – from being exploited and turned into sex slaves.
Operation Cross Country rescued children in San Francisco, Detroit, Milwaukee, Denver, New Orleans and elsewhere. But the criminals who prey on children could be anywhere. Police need help digging them out.
The FBI’s Innocence Lost National Initiative, begun in 2003, has rescued 2,700 children and resulted in convictions for 1,350 individuals. Ten of the pimps are serving life sentences and more than $3.1 million in assets have been seized.
But prevention is the key to ending this scourge, and that’s where the legislation comes in. There should be strong bipartisan support for the Child Sex Trafficking Data and Response Act of 2013, which would improve state and national tracking of child sex trafficking and bring about reforms to better identify and assist the victims.
In the past, victims of sex trafficking have sometimes been treated as criminals and been arrested with their pimps. The proposed bill would instead help them reclaim their lives by encouraging coordination between child welfare, juvenile justice and social service agencies and by focusing on placing children in stable housing.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and co-sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Reps. Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport, and Erik Paulsen, R-Minn. This latest operation should help move the bill out of committee.
One of the shocking revelations is that these children are being recruited straight out of foster care facilities and right off the streets. The Justice Department estimates that one-third of teens living on the street will be lured toward prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home.
Technology is also abetting this despicable trade. Pimps are contacting teenagers through social media or through Backpage.com, an online classified site with a huge inventory of sex ads. Lawyers for Backpage.com insisted their client fully cooperates with law enforcement and that shutting down the site would only move those ads to “offshore uncooperative websites.”
Besides online sites, underage prostitution exists at high-profile sporting events like the Super Bowl and the NCAA Final Four. One former child prostitute told CNN, “More girls are going to be sold at the Super Bowl than, probably, tickets.” This is a stark reality.
In May, the Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking and the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth held a forum to discuss how children in the child welfare and foster care systems are vulnerable to traffickers, and discussed ways to help victims of child trafficking. The Child Sex Trafficking Data and Response Act is a good place to start.