Last week, I had the honor of speaking before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of two bills addressing human trafficking: the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act and the Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act. I was able to share my personal story and stress the need for laws that better protect victims of human trafficking. As I state in my testimony, had these bills been passed before 1992 perhaps law enforcement would have immediately recognized that I was a victim, not a criminal. Perhaps funds from the proposed Domestic Trafficking Victims’ Fund could have enabled me to immediately enter effective aftercare treatment and remain there until I fully understood that what had happened to me was not my fault. Perhaps my healing process could have been easier, faster. And perhaps my family and I could have had an easier transition. Even though these protections weren’t available to me, they can be made available to victims today. With effective and well-informed legislation and services, victims can heal, overcome, and achieve their greatest dreams and highest potential.
Without effective support and services in place, however, it may be difficult for victims to move forward. Child victims may return to exploitative situations or they may be returned to abusive or neglectful situations from which they had originally run. While youth may escape juvenile detention, they might not escape continued abuse or sexual exploitation. This is particularly true in states implementing safe harbor protections where law enforcement cannot adequately respond without well-resourced service providers trained to work with child victims of commercial sexual exploitation. This is why I encourage legislators to include provisions that authorize resources for services for all victims of human trafficking and child exploitation – girls, boys, men, and women.
In addition, I strongly advocate for creation of programs that focus on prevention. Many survivors agree that policies on prevention should be one of our highest priorities, which is why it should also be a priority for policymakers. In my book, Walking Prey: How America’s Youth are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery, I discuss many predisposing risk factors that can increase a child’s vulnerability to a sex trafficker’s tactics, as well as community risk factors that increase the likelihood of crossing paths with a trafficker or other exploiter. With effective community programs focused on education and prevention, we can help to prevent human trafficking and child exploitation from happening in the first place. One particular predisposing factor I mention in Walking Prey is being a youth with minority status, including LGBTQ youth.
In my testimony, I share the story of Nikolaos Al-Khadra (pictured above) to help illustrate and underscore the need to pass the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act. Nik is a male advocate from Chicago who identifies as a survivor of sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. Nik says he was forced into prostitution at the age of seventeen; he had been ordered to leave home after accepting his identity as a gay male. “I grew up with [a lot] of emotional and physical abuse,” Nik wrote to me in a personal email. He describes a home life in which his father regularly attempted to “’beat the gay out’” of him. He writes: “I drove to the gay area of Chicago. I had parked my car, met some other kids who were hanging out on a street named Halsted. I had went back to my car to get something not paying attention and was snatched from my car.”
Nik then describes a hellish experience of forced drug use and forced prostitution. After managing to escape, Nik says he then returned to “’Boystown’” and “networked” with others on the street. He says this ultimately led him to illegal escort agencies through which he was exploited for sex in order to survive. He writes: “There really needs to be more programs for LGBTQ youth who become homeless over parents attitudes [toward their] child’s sexuality. I think being beat down mentally all throughout my childhood was why I stayed years in the sex trade.”
Many youth in America face homelessness for various reasons, including running away or leaving home to escape abuse or neglect. The National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) estimates that, on an annual basis, approximately 380,000 youth under the age of eighteen “experience a homelessness episode of longer than one week.” The NAEH further estimates that about 50,000 youth in America “sleep on the street for six months or more.” Included among homeless youth are LGBTQ youth who may run away to escape discrimination within their homes or communities. The NAEH explains that “[m]ultiple research studies indicate that a conservative estimate finds 1 in 5 homeless youth self-identify as…LGBTQ.” A 2001 University of Pennsylvania study reports a “place holder” number of 3,000 regarding transgender youth living on the streets of America…; however, the authors say they believe the actual number to be “much higher.”
I’m grateful for Nik’s advocacy and for the opportunity to share his story. Nik and I both agree that the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act is a necessary step toward preventing sex trafficking and protecting runaway and homeless youth. If you are an organization or advocate in the anti-trafficking community, please click here to sign and show your support for reauthorization of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act. Thank you!