By guest blogger Gina Cairney
The victims of human trafficking are often hidden in plain site, a fact that fuels a common misperception that this "lucrative industry" is a "foreign problem" that doesn't exist in the United States.
The truth, said Alice Hill, is that human trafficking is an everywhere problem, and is happening all across the United States.
Hill, a senior counselor to the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, spoke along with two other panelists yesterday at an event at the U.S. Department of Education to discuss the nature and extent of child trafficking within this country.
They also spoke about awareness raising, and offered preliminary guides on how schools can identify and help students at risk for being "picked up" by pimps and traffickers.
It is estimated that at least 100,000 children across the country are sexually exploited each year, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, but the real numbers may be significantly higher.
Hill estimated that, worldwide, there are close to 20.9 million victims, the largest number in recorded history. It's also estimated to be a $32 billion industry, coming in just behind illegal drugs.
School-aged children are often targeted because of their vulnerability and guillibility, according to Jenee Littrell, an assistant principal of Grossmont Union High School in San Diego, but the panelists made it clear that human trafficking does not discriminate.
Anyone can be a victim.
The average age of children taken by pimps and traffickers are 12 to 14 years old for girls, and 11 to 13 years old for boys, Hill said. The youngsters can be approached at school by friends or peers already in "The Life".
Traffickers also target minors at school-sponsored events, and on their way to and from school, Littrell said.
Littrell was inspired to combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children when her school district identified its first victim in 2009.
Listening to this young woman's experience, about how she ended up on the streets after changing schools and being bullied, ignited a passion within Littrell, she said.
"My school system, the thing we can control did not protect her and address her needs," Littrell told Education Week, "and further isolated her and pushed her away from us."
At that point, it was clear that if something wasn't done, the "stakes would be huge," she said.
San Diego is one of three "high prostitution areas" identified by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The other two are Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Grossmont Union was one of the first school districts to notice a pervasive pattern of students falling victim to pimps, according to San Diego County News Center.
Working with the vice unit in San Diego, Grossmont Union's staff and county social service workers underwent comprehensive training to be better able to identify students who may be at risk of, or have been pulled into, prostitution.
Littrell identified three levels of involvement into "The Life".
The "party crew" is where potential recruits are groomed into the life. These children still attend school regularly, but are invited to a party that unbeknownst to them is really a sex party.
At these parties female minors are often drugged and coerced into performing sexual acts for paying clients, Littrell said.
The other two levels include increased truancy with an eventual dropping out of school when the victim fully joins the track.
Educators have a unique opportunity to identify students involved in such situations, Littrell said, and have the responsibility to report to authorities any suspected exploitation of students.
"When this is happening, it's a huge safety issue not only for our young victims, but for the other students," she said.
Whether school districts realize it or not, schools are on the front lines for preventing child trafficking and exploitation.
If educators develop partnerships with local law enforcement and social child services, like Grossmont Union did, they can be trained to notice indicators of CSEC, and intervene effectively, said Eve Birge, the Education Department's liaison on domestic human trafficking and gender-based violence.
President Obama announced several initiatives last September to help combat what his administration has called "modern-day slavery."
In his remarks, the president said the issue of human trafficking should be a concern to every person, community, business, and nation because it is a "debasement of our common humanity."
It tears away at the social fabric, and endangers public health.
The initiatives, aimed at eliminating human trafficking, include:
- Strengthening the U.S. Government's existing zero-tolerance policy on human trafficking in government contracting;
- Providing training and guidance to federal prosecutors, law enforcement officials, immigration judges, and other sectors to better detect incidences of human trafficking, and to treat victims as victims, not as criminals;
- Expanding services and legal assistance to trafficking victims; and,
- Developing the first-ever domestic human trafficking assessment to better track trends within the country.
But without understanding the needs of the victims first, Hill said it will be difficult to determine to what extent these policies will work.
"Victims sometimes don't initially want help," Hill said, "and there's concern that our policies may put them at greater risk."
The ultimate goal, according to Hill, is to rescue exploited children and to get them to believe in the value of who they are rather than the sale of their bodies.
"It's a very complex psychological issue, lots of factors are at play that we still need to better understand," she said. "Part of this ... is just unfolding, we're just discovering this."
PHOTO: Jenee Littrell, assistant principal of Grossmont Union High School in San Diego, Calif., speaks at a U.S. Department of Education event on the trafficking and sexual exploitation of children in the United States. (Gina Cairney/Education Week)
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