Calling on the gay community to support youth services for child victims of sex trafficking

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times

As celebrations for Gay Pride Month come to a close, I’d like to take a moment to point out a troubling gap in services for gay and transgender youth who have been commercially sexually exploited.

In March of this year, Project Q Atlanta reported that Atlanta drag queen personality Pasha Nicole received a 14-year prison sentence for “forcing a transgender teenager into prostitution,” among other offenses related to trafficking.

Nicole, known legally as Christopher Thomas Lynch, was charged alongside her 35-year-old roommate and gay bar go-go dancer, Steven Donald Lemery.   WSBTV reported the following pending charges against Lemery:  five counts of aggravated child molestation, two counts of human trafficking, child molestation, enticing a child for indecent purposes, and pandering by compulsion.

What’s most troubling in this story is the trauma inflicted on the victims.

The Georgia Voice reported that Lemery used social networking sites to lure teen boys to his house, and then he would not allow them to leave.  Furthermore, it is alleged that Lemery did not feed the victims and that he kept them locked in a closet.

According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC), Chief Deputy Sheriff Stan Copeland stated that “most of the victims were runaways or easy targets.”

“They would put the kids in a dependent situation,” the AJC quoted Copeland, “if [the victims] wanted to leave, they’d have to perform sexual favors.”

The AJC further reported that deputies had identified victims in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina and that the trafficking scheme was alleged to have dated back two to three years.

This story, which seems rare and sensationalized, is all too familiar to Tina Frundt, founder of Courtney’s House in Washington DC.

“Eighty-eight percent of all survivors identify as LGBTQQ,” stated Tina, “this statistic is unsurprising, given that trafficked teens are forced into all sorts of sexual situations during their formative years, and are therefore unable to discover their sexuality in a normal or natural way.”

While there is still a great need for services for female child victims, there are even less services available for males.

“There aren’t a great deal of organizations with the capacity or expertise to serve trafficked boys,” said Nicole Moler with the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), “finding shelter and other social services for males of all ages has been a significant challenge for the hotline in most states.”

Tina Frundt, who is also a survivor of child sex trafficking, understands and emphasizes that every aspect of a child’s trafficking situation must be addressed in a loving and nonjudgmental way.  With that attitude in mind, Courtney’s House provides services for survivors – both male and female – aged 12-21 years.  It is one of only a handful of organizations that provides support for girls as well as boys.

“I started working with boys because I saw many boys who were sex trafficked with me,” said Tina, “There were no services for girls, or boys, at the time and that made it very hard to get out of the life.”

Tina stated that support has improved somewhat for female survivors of sex trafficking because advocates have worked to overcome the popular misconception that girls turn to prostitution to meet basic needs, a practice known as “survival sex.”  Tina pointed out that boys, however, have not been as fortunate to escape this illusion of choice and that this stigma makes it much harder for boys to find services.

Tina stated the following:

“At Courtney’s House we see the average age of entry for boys is 6 to 10 years old.  Even if he wanted to, a child of that age would undoubtedly lack the imagination and know-how to find his way into the life.  Unfortunately, that’s where the family comes in.  All of the male clients who Courtney’s House serves have been in the foster care system after leaving abusive parents who trafficked and manipulated them from an early age…

The issue of choice is a moot point.  Federal law says any child under 18 years old cannot sell themselves for sex.  The law protects them from this, but somehow we only think of girls, not the many boys who are also abused.  It’s a crime to abuse children, period.  We [at Courtney’s House] focus on sex trafficking of children both male and female, no matter what their sexual identity is – shouldn’t that be the norm?”

Unfortunately, it isn’t. And with disparities between the federal and local level, the law isn’t always on the child’s side.

“The first time I was arrested for prostitution I was 13 years old,” stated a 15-year-old male survivor from Courtney’s House, “Why was I charged if I’m a sex trafficking survivor?”

Tina wrote her curriculum to focus on transitioning the child’s mind, male and female, away from identification with the trafficking lifestyle.  Tina’s curriculum includes discussion of LGBTQQ issues surrounding trafficking situations for both boys and girls.  Courtney’s House serves children in the Washington DC, northern Virginia, and southern Maryland areas.

In the wake of Gay Pride celebrations, I urge the gay community to reach out and support organizations that provide services to those youth who are least supported in the anti-trafficking movement.  Please call the NHTRC hotline at 1-888-373-7888 to find an organization close to you.

The Importance of Media Literacy in Preventing Child Sex Trafficking

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times

Girls movie night

WASHINGTON, DC, June 19 2012 – I was trafficked when I was fourteen years old.  It was the summer between eighth grade middle school and ninth grade high school.  The man who trafficked me convinced me to run away from home with stories about Hollywood.  He said he could help me become a model, an actress, or a songwriter, and that he could introduce me to famous people.  Some say that a 14-year-old is old enough to understand that wasn’t a reality.

I beg to differ.

The world created by the media for young teens is saturated with stories about celebrities.  The idea of being famous or becoming famous is pushed on almost all types of media.  From 16 and Pregnant to American Idol, teens are watching girls transform from being regular kids to becoming household names.  And these are the names deemed to be important and worthy enough to be mentioned on teen-driven media like MTV, the radio, and fashion magazines.

Traffickers are fully aware of what popular culture is telling your teens.  This is why my top prevention strategies for child trafficking include media literacy programs in intermediate, middle, and high schools.

Role Models.  Today’s role models for children and teens consist mainly of movie actors, mainstream musicians, and other television celebrities.  This encourages children to aim for one goal: fame.  Traffickers will entice young girls and boys with false promises for Hollywood stardom.  I strongly encourage educators to promote local young role models via posters, class trips, and invitations for speaking engagements inside the classroom.  Although many role models are entertainers, they can also be involved in sports, nutrition, advocacy, volunteering, politics, entrepreneurship, and other areas which promote critical thinking and positivity. To help children understand these effects from advertising, try showing Nicole Clark’s documentary, Cover Girl Culture.

Advertising.  Traffickers recognize that, from billboards to commercials to magazines, advertisers are telling your children that they must have a certain product or line of clothing in order to be cool.  Those kids who can’t afford these products often feel less worthy, leading to decreased self-value and depression.  If children are shown the process behind marketing, then they will better understand that a celebrity or model is getting paid to tell them that they need this or that product.  Traffickers capitalize on a child’s need to feel accepted, and they often entice them with trendy clothes and shoes.  An excellent documentary for this topic is Adriana Barbaro & Jeremy Earp documentary, Consuming Kids: the Commercialization of Childhood.

Unrealistic Beauty.  Advertisements are saturated with images of women with impossibly thin figures and impossibly perfect complexions.  The fact is most of these models sit through hours of make-up applications and hair treatments; plus, the final pictures are typically photo-shopped to shave off inches and to conceal imperfections.  Without educating them about it, children and teens don’t understand this.  And those who are left in the dark often compare themselves to these unrealistic images, often leading to low self-esteem.  This is the reason traffickers often romance teens and preteens with affirmations about their beauty.  Educators can counteract this culture by showing Jean Kilbourne’s documentary, Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women and by hanging posters of role models in all shapes, sizes, and colors.

Objectification and Self-Objectification.  Advertisements often show women as objects.  From convenient store posters of bathing-suit clad models toting beer bottles to television commercials of seemingly nude women promoting a webhosting company, women are constantly shown as sexual objects. This overload of imagery causes girls to self-objectify, meaning they begin to view themselves as objects to display and critique.  Self-objectification leads to a myriad of health issues including eating disorders, body shame, and depression.  Educating children about the negative effects of this culture is the only way to expose the marketing industry and to empower young people to overcome the devices of deception used by enterprise tycoons.  Jean Kilbourne and Nicole Clark both address this topic in their documentaries.

Oversexualization of Girls.  The ages of objectified girls in the media are getting younger and younger.  What this tells young girls is that they must have sex appeal.  A sex trafficker once said that he didn’t have to groom his victims because society did that for him.  I can personally attest to this.  The media is saturated with messages about sex, from music lyrics to Abercrombie & Fitch advertisements.  Educators should have open discussions with students about the meanings behind music lyrics and advertising images.  I highly recommend assigning M. Gigi’s Durham’s book, The Lolita Effect, or watching Elizabeth Massie’s documentary, What a Girl Wants.

Violence against Women.  Scenes containing sexual images are often rife with violence against women, especially in music videos.  Not only does this lead young women to accept, and even expect, a certain level of violence, but it leads young men to also believe that a certain level of violence is acceptable.  Educators must have open discussions with students about the meanings behind music videos, lyrics, and scenes in popular movies.  I highly recommend that college professors show Sut Jhally’s documentary, Dreamworlds 3: Desire, Sex and Power in Music Video.

To order the above-mentioned documentaries and others, please visit the Media Education Foundation and Women Make Movies.

Rahab’s Hideaway opens in-house program for children in Ohio

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times

Rahab's Hideaway

WASHINGTON, DC, June 14, 2012 – Last month, the Associated Press reported that three men were convicted in a child sex-trafficking ring run mostly by Somali gang members that spanned from Minnesota to Tennessee, including Columbus, Ohio.  The article reported that a Somali victim, identified only as Jane Doe Number Two, testified that she was “used as a prostitute by gang members starting at the age of twelve.”

Child sex trafficking is not a new issue in Columbus, Ohio.  As far back as 2009, the FBI reported having rescued 45 potential underage victims of sex trafficking, some as young as thirteen, in a state-wide sweep.  Survivors know from experience that the pain for a victim of sex trafficking does not end upon rescue; the process of healing takes time and specialized care.

Many have stepped forward in the anti-human trafficking movement, but a survivor’s voice is the strongest and most powerful among them.  One such survivor, Marlene Carson of Columbus, Ohio, founded a grassroots outreach ministry called Rahab’s Hideaway, Inc. in 2008.  Marlene led this ministry into the darkest hours of the night to rescue homeless teenage girls and adult young women involved in prostitution.

“We dare[d] to face what most fear,” Marlene said, “the traffickers…traffickers and pimps always tell their victims that no one cares about [them] or is looking for [them], but [we] are [the] people out here who will not stop until [they] are all free.”

Marlene’s outreach ministry eventually grew into a shelter for adult women.  Marlene collaborated with community members in order to provide victims with connections to many resources including maternal and pediatric health care, mental health services, child and youth development programs, education, and job training.  Rahab’s Hideaway also collaborated with a part-time housing advocate whose primary responsibility was to assist residents in their permanent housing search.  Individual meetings were provided to ensure that residents were working constructively towards their goals.

Marlene also opened a restaurant called Boujhetto’s Soul Food in order to provide survivors with job skills and experience.

“We watched these women grow, mature, progress, and survive,” Marlene said, “This is a story of liberation from physical, emotional, and even spiritual control…the only piece missing was a shelter for the youth.”

Well, not anymore.

Rahab’s Hideaway is partnering with the Rosemont Center in east Columbus to provide the first fully-comprehensive treatment facility for child victims of sex trafficking.  Rahab’s at Rosemont Center is slated to open this fall, in September 2012, and will be able to house up to 32 girls, aged 11 to 18, for up to two years.

“We are a means to…education,” Marlene stated, “For [those] who have been sold so much that they feel they have nothing left, we instill value.”

According to the organization’s website, more than a thousand children from the state of Ohio fall into the hands of traffickers each year.  The website for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) cites the following nationwide statistic:

“Each year thousands of children run away from home, are forced out of their homes, or are simply abducted by their parents or guardians.  The National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children 2 (NISMART-2), conducted by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), estimates that in 1999 more than 1,680,000 children had runaway or thrownaway episodes.”

As I have explained in a past article, many runaway children who wind up in the clutches of sex traffickers were abused or exploited in their childhood; this is the reason they are often unable to identify themselves as currently being exploited or victimized.  Marlene aims to provide these children with a program that will not only provide refuge but will facilitate recovery.  The staff at Rahab’s at Rosemont Center recognize that treatment for prior abuse is required in order to properly care for child victims of sex trafficking.  Their brochure states the following:

“It is estimated that 80 percent of prostituted persons within the United States have suffered physical or sexual abuse before entering the sex trade.  Experts agree that this population, which includes women and children from a variety of socioeconomic conditions, were often victims of abuse long before they were introduced to prostitution.  Chronic sexual exploitation often causes victims to feel powerless, forcing them to stay in their circumstances.  The traffickers who control such women and children often remove any last hope for alternatives.”

On Thursday this week, Rahab’s at Rosemont Center will be hosting a housewarming and fundraising event.  Stacy Jewell Lewis, a playwright, producer, artist, and survivor of trafficking, will be performing a spoken word monologue at the event.

“Marlene really is inspiring, direct, and a no-nonsense kind of person,” said Stacy, “I love the fact that she’s open to supporting other survivors’ missions and is totally giving of herself to victims…truly an inspiration of where dedication and hard work can get you.”

“Yes, I am a survivor of human trafficking,” Marlene said, “and I thank God for second chances… for those who are looking for a way out, Rahab’s Hideaway is a beacon of light.”

For more information, please visit the Rahab’s at Rosement Center website or contact Marlene at Mcarson@RahabsHideaway.org.

If you are looking to place a victim, please call Rahab’s 24-hour hotline at 614-593-5033 or call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline at 888-373-7888.

Resources for Media Literacy Education

In response to my recent articles regarding the need for media literacy in school prevention programs, I am posting a list of resources for teachers and parents.

I will continue to add to this; please contact me if you would like to be added as a resource.

Organizations which Offer Education Curriculum

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood:   Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) is a national coalition of health care professionals, educators, advocacy groups, parents, and individuals who care about children. CCFC is the only national organization devoted to limiting the impact of commercial culture on children.  CCFC’s staff and Steering Committee are activists, authors, and leading experts on the impact of media and marketing on children.  Most of us are also parents. Continue reading

10 trafficking prevention tips for elementary schools

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times

Think positive

WASHINGTON, DC, June 5, 2012 – Last month, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell signed into legislation the SB 259/HB1188 bill.  This bill requires the Board of Education and the Department of Social Services to collaborate and provide awareness and training materials for local school divisions on human trafficking, including strategies to prevent child trafficking.

Child traffickers target teens and preteens who are vulnerable, those whose lack of guidance and support has led to decreased self-confidence and a growing depression, among other things.  Teachers have the opportunity to fill this gap for children.  As a survivor of child trafficking, I am a strong advocate that prevention strategies begin early.

The following strategies are recommended for any elementary or intermediate school in America and should be aligned with basic programs designed to support a child’s transition through middle childhood.  The goal is to support children in order to sustain their self-confidence and to develop their character and their awareness of the world around them.  Fortunately, many schools have already started to work on programs which include these goals or have already instilled some of these ideas into their curricula.

Educate Children about Media and Advertising.  First and foremost, media literacy programs must begin early!  Advertisers have hired child psychologists and other professionals to help target children with brand marketing and to distort their perceptions of morality and necessity.  We must educate our children to understand that images in the media and advertisements are not reflections of reality.

Discuss personal health and etiquette issues like personal hygiene and social manners.  A child who lacks this type of guidance at home is often bullied at school.

Instill programs which cover bullying, self-defense, and coping skills.  Kids must be prepared to recognize peer pressure / bullying and must be equipped with ways to deal with it.  Coping strategies can include meditation, reading books, journaling, channeling energy into sports/hobbies/music, and self-defense classes.  A child who is confident about defending him or herself is less likely to buckle under bullying.

Include nutrition education in health classes.  The basic elements for a healthy lifestyle must be instilled early; make healthy lunch and snack choices available to kids at school.  Positive physical health helps to nurture and maintain positive mental health.

Explore different cultures.  Knowledge is power; expose children to many aspects of the world in order to educate and engage them.

Create a sports tutorship program.  Create space in the weekly schedule to have physical education instructors or tutors work one-on-one, or in small groups, with those kids who struggle with sports.  There are tutors for children who struggle with math, why not for those kids who struggle with catching or kicking a ball?

Expose children to a variety of role models.  Today’s role models for children consist mainly of movie actors and other television celebrities.  This encourages children to aim for one goal: fame.  Popularity becomes the definition for success.  I strongly encourage educators to promote local young role models involved in music, sports, nutrition, advocacy, volunteering, politics, entrepreneurship, and other areas which promote positivity.  Invite these community members into the classroom to speak, or take the kids on a class trip to learn more about the organization or occupation.  If that’s not possible, raise awareness for these role models and their efforts by hanging posters in school hallways.

Invite local volunteer-based organizations into the schools, especially organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters, Girls for a Change, and other similar child-focused groups.  Teachers should get to know and have a working relationship with the leaders of these organizations; this way they can recommend connections to troubled kids or to parents of those children who are struggling.

Strengthen a child’s self-esteem, self-confidence, and overall self-value with extracurricular activities.  If you see a child struggling, encourage him or her to maintain enrollment in an extracurricular activity.  This is most important in the intermediate school age years.  Those children who identify with their strengths in intermediate school will be less likely to lose sight of their self-identity in middle school.  If funding is limited for programs like art and music, create incentives for community members to donate their time, money, or equipment.

Connect troubled kids with school counselors.  Identify children whose behavior/personality starts to change, and connect them with school counselors early!  Such changes as a drop in grades, a change in friends, and a negative change in personality can indicate depression or other mood disorders.  Watch for signs like bruises and cuts, social withdrawal, and running away.  If this child is not receiving additional help outside of school, then help them to develop a long-term relationship with school counselors.  It takes more than a few counseling sessions for a child to gain trust for an unfamiliar adult.

Beth Jacobs, BSW, a child trafficking survivor and survivor advocate, also recommends that teachers listen to children.  Often, children are speaking up, but the adults around them aren’t paying enough attention.  Barbara Amaya, also a child trafficking survivor and survivor advocate, recommends that teachers discuss the issue of running away with students.  Providing a list of alternatives to running away is also a good idea.

The building blocks for self-confidence and critical thinking must be laid in elementary school and must continue to build through intermediate school in order to prepare kids for the hormone-driven, self-identity-shaking middle school years.  These are the years in which traffickers are looking for troubled teens.  This concept applies most to those children missing this type of emotional nourishment and guidance at home.  For additional tips for parents, please register on my website at www.HollyAustinSmith.com.