January 2019 is Human Trafficking Awareness month, a time which is set aside to honor the many survivors of human trafficking, but also to reflect on the thousands of social workers, law enforcement officers and victim advocates around the country who work tirelessly to extricate children from the horrors of the commercial sex trade. In Imperial County, every child welfare worker is trained in sex trafficking identification from the moment they complete the Child Welfare Academy. This training is critical for identifying system-involved children who are at risk for, or actively being exploited. It also helps to dispel many of the misconceptions surrounding the dynamics of child sex trafficking.
Of all of the myths which exist about domestic child sex trafficking, one of the most damaging is the belief that leaving an exploiter is easy. Hollywood movies often perpetuate this myth by framing human trafficking as being predominantly physical kidnapping of young women (often by foreign actors) and the forcible holding of victims in secret captivity. In this myth, escape from a trafficker is as simple as running away or being rescued. This makes for good television and movies (i.e., Taken) but is far from reality.
The vast majority of child sex trafficking victims are not foreign, but United States citizens. Victims generally know their exploiter long before the relationship turns violent, and traffickers trap their victims through coercive and abusive relationships similar to domestic violence. Most young girls are not kidnapped, but luredand manipulated into abusive relationships which eventually become sexually exploitive. Unlike the movies, many victims are young girls of color, and rather than being held in secret, there is substantial evidence that exploited children are known to either the juvenile delinquency or child welfare system. This is why our training is so important to us.
However, the worst myth about child sex trafficking is the idea that young girls are somehow responsible for their own sexual exploitation. This myth drives the continued criminalization of sexually exploited children. Several national organizations, including Rights4Girls and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges refer to this as the Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline.It includes referring to children who are sexually exploited as “child prostitutes,” prosecuting them for acts related to their victimization, and punishing young girls for behavior which is ultimately trauma-induced. We have known this was wrong for a long time. In fact, “sexual abuse is one of the primary predictors of girls’ entry into the juvenile justice system.”When young trauma victims are placed in a system which does not understand trauma fueled behavior, the system’s response is often to escalate punishment and institutionalization. This has always been the wrong answer. In Imperial County, we see, and do things differently. But it is not the same around the country.
This January 11, we encourage everyone in Imperial County to wear blue for Trafficking Awareness Day. If you would like to set up a trafficking awareness training at your business or school, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also donate to the Center for Family Solutions, one of the only organizations in Imperial County which works with victims of commercial sexual exploitation, or you can volunteer with the Department of Social Services or CASA of Imperial County.
Paula Llanas MSW, Assistant Director of Dept. of Social Services
Kelly Ranasinghe Esq., Henderson and Ranasinghe LLP
The opinions of the authors are their own and do not reflect the official policy of the County of Imperial or any organization.
Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline, Rights4Girls, http://rights4girls.org/wp-content/uploads/r4g/2015/02/2015_COP_sexual-abuse_report_final.pdf