By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times
WASHINGTON, DC, May 8, 2012 – Reports of child sex trafficking cases have been sweeping through the nation. Northern Virginia alone has had several cases reported by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia in the past 6 months, several of which involved violent gangs like MS-13 and the Underground Gangster Crips (UGC).
In a case from just last month, a Manassas, Virginia member of the street gang, SUR-13, pled guilty to the sex trafficking of a 14-year-old girl. And just days ago, it was reported that a Lorton, Virginia leader of the Crips gang was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of luring at least seven high school girls into a child sex trafficking ring by recruiting them from local schools and through online social networking sites .
The Commonwealth of Virginia is the rule, not the exception. Violent child sex traffickers are targeting middle and high school students nationwide. Last week, a Tennessee jury convicted three members of a Somali gang that were responsible for the sex trafficking of a 12-year-old seventh grade girl. Last year, police in Oceanside, California led an investigation that resulted in the indictment of 38 Crips gang members for child sex trafficking.
In February 2012, a Florida man was charged with sex trafficking of children, conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of children, and inducing a minor to engage in a commercial sex act. The following month, a Portland, Oregon man appeared in federal court for charges of sex trafficking, including sex trafficking of a child, coercion and enticement of a minor, and transportation of a minor for prostitution. A woman from Columbia, Missouri was also sentenced the same month in federal court for her role in a sex trafficking conspiracy in which a child was sold into prostitution.
These are only a few of the cases reported throughout the country.
Traffickers specifically target school-age boys and girls not only because children are preferred by the buyers but because children are deemed easier to manipulate and control. I know this because I was once one of those kids, lured away from home at age 14.
In the summer of 1992, just after I graduated eighth grade middle school, I ran away with a man I had met at the mall. I was lonely and angry, and this man reached out to me. This stranger, who gained my trust over several phone conversations, turned out to be a manipulative and intimidating pimp. He took me to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and he forced me to prostitute. By the time police spotted me on the street, I had been trafficked over half a dozen times.
Besides immediate family members, the only people to visit me in the hospital were my middle school science teacher, Mr. Steele, and two guidance counselors, Ms. Jackie Somma and Ms. Carol Turano. They drove over an hour to see me. Mr. Steele brought science textbooks because I loved biology. Ms. Somma and Ms. Turano sat close together on a couch and encouraged me the best way they could. I don’t remember anything they said. I just remember them being there for me.
These teachers wanted to help me; they just didn’t know how. Within days of my rescue, I attempted suicide.
Earlier this year, I testified in Richmond, Virginia, before the Senate Education Committee in support of SB 259 which had been introduced by Senator Adam Ebbin. This legislation, which passed unanimously and is being signed by Governor Bob McDonnell today, will require the Board of Education and the Department of Social Services to provide awareness and training materials for local school divisions on human trafficking, including strategies for the prevention of trafficking children.
As a survivor and advocate for child trafficking victims, I encourage other legislators and states across the country to follow Virginia’s lead. Teachers have the unique opportunity to identify children who are at risk for trafficking, those who are currently being trafficked, and those who have been trafficked for sex or labor. With the right tools, I believe our teachers will rise to the call to help protect our children from these predators and to serve those who are adjusting to life after the trauma.
I cycled through several high schools in New Jersey as I struggled to overcome what had happened to me. Those who acted as the most positive constants in my life were my teachers. They were my beacon in the darkness. It was with their guidance, and my family’s support, that I managed to complete high school and to graduate college with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology.
Teachers are among our first lines of defense to ending human trafficking. If we hope to gain the tactical advantage over traffickers, then we must recognize this collectively countrywide. The Commonwealth of Virginia is among the first states to require that educators be given these resources. In order to protect our nation’s children from the knuckled grasps of predatory traffickers, it is imperative that other states follow the lead of Virginia and pass similar legislation.