Shame of the cities

Trafficking: Tens of thousands of young girls are being forced into prostitution in the United States; activist Linda Smith wants to know what Americans—and Christians—are prepared to do about it | Mark Bergin

VANCOUVER, Wash.—The headquarters of Shared Hope International is humble, occupying a rickety storefront on a side street in Vancouver, Wash. The organization's staff is small, about 17. But the cause of this decade-old nonprofit is grand—and the impact of its efforts immeasurable.

At 12 years old, Tanya was not unlike millions of other American girls—pretty, intelligent, ambitious. But on her walk to school one day, a seemingly chance encounter with an older boy would lead to a hellish lifestyle of beatings and sexual slavery.

It began innocuously enough, a compliment here, a car ride there. Before long, the pair was a couple. Then everything changed—power plays, manipulation, physical abuse. Tanya was too young to resist and too emotionally attached to leave: "When I realized that my boyfriend was a pimp, I thought, well, I guess that's just the way it is, and I did what he told me."

Over the next four years, Tanya's pimp prostituted her to more than 100 men per month. On 17 occasions, the criminal justice system had opportunity to intervene, but each time, police arrested Tanya as a criminal rather than caring for her as a victim. She was labeled a "child prostitute" and spent many nights in jails or group homes for recovering drug addicts. She began to believe she must be the criminal, given that the pimps and "johns" weren't doing any jail time.

It took an uncommon law enforcement officer to break the arrest cycle, connecting Tanya with the Wake Up Youth program in Toledo, Ohio, a partner organization of Shared Hope International (SHI). Wake Up Youth director and founder EleSondra DeRomano, herself a past victim of domestic child sex trafficking, walked Tanya out of dehumanization and back to personhood. "I had a torn-soul to torn-soul relationship with her," Tanya recalls in an online account of her ordeal.

Tragically, Tanya's story is far from rare. Between 100,000 and 300,000 U.S. children are enslaved in sex trafficking each year, according to Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. What's worse, only a small fraction of those ever find the support needed to get out. Among prostitutes nationwide, the Justice Department pins the average age for entering the sex industry at 12 to 14 years old.

SHI founder and director Linda Smith clenches her jaw with quiet rage when she quotes such statistics. The former U.S. congresswoman has spent the past decade banging her head against an ever-frustrating reality: Too many girls fall victim to sex trafficking for rescue groups ever to keep up.

The solution, Smith has determined, is not that organizations redouble their fundraising initiatives, hire more staff, or work longer hours to reach more victims. The solution, she says, is to dry up demand: "If there weren't demand, there wouldn't be the child sold. If a few men were hung like crows over the corn, if men thought their life would be dead if they bought children, you better know some of them would stop buying."

Smith's tough talk flows from the litany of heart-breaking stories that invade her life daily. She has seen what trafficking does to girls and witnessed the dark souls of the men whose lust sponsors the industry. The first story invaded her life on a trip to Bombay, India, in 1998, while she was serving in Congress. Traveling along the Falkland Road, site for some of the world's filthiest and most frequented brothels, Smith locked eyes with a 13-year-old girl and heard the voice of God: "It was as if God whispered in my ear, 'Touch her for Me.'"

Smith placed a kind hand on the child's shoulder, and she immediately slumped into Smith's arms. That salient moment birthed the vision for SHI and a career shift away from politics (see sidebar).

Smith has since traveled around the globe in an effort to expose international sex tourism and trafficking. More recently, she has turned her focus stateside and discovered the problem is no less disturbing.

SHI has spent the past two years sending undercover agents into the teeth of the U.S. industry, collecting data primarily on just who is purchasing children for sex. "The buyer is pretty typical. He's an American man from every spectrum," Smith said. "If you have 100,000 children being used around 10 times a night, seven days a week, look at the number of men. We don't have that many typical pedophiles. These are men who have evolved from seeing younger and younger porn."

The ready availability of internet pornography majoring in the exploitation of teenage girls has greatly fueled stateside demand over the past decade. Smith hopes to link pornography to sex trafficking in the minds of all men as a deterrent against beginning down a dangerous path. With input from Focus on the Family, SHI crafted The Defenders USA, an initiative challenging men not only to resist their personal temptations but actively to seek the downfall of the entire commercial sex industry.

Thus far, fewer than 2,000 men have joined the new campaign, which requires taking a pledge of personal abstinence, community accountability, and active protection of women and children. SHI will ramp up visibility for the effort when it releases its national report on sex trafficking this spring.

Smith anticipates far greater response as Christians become aware of the issue: "We need to mourn the selling of innocents. And we need to, as believers, ask God to forgive us for our apathy and go out there and fight for these kids," she said. "If you knew that in your city tonight there were 5,000 slaves, would it bother you? Would you do something? What about 500? Would you march if you knew there were 500 people being hurt and enslaved? You would. Well there are, and we can prove it in every city we've looked at in the United States."

The proof includes disturbing footage from hidden cameras of undercover SHI agents making deals with pimps. Even before such evidence goes public, SHI has already begun acting on its findings. Leaning along the wall in an upstairs room of the organization's Vancouver office, a dozen prototypical picket signs carry strong messages meant to jar passers-by into action. "Your daughter may be next." "Do you know where your husband is?" "Real men don't buy sex."

The signs are part of a campaign aimed at truck stops, a popular spot for trafficking, where child prostitutes are derogatorily termed "lot lizards" and sent from truck to truck by order of CB radio. Recent raids from the Justice Department have typified just how deep the truck stop issue runs. Local police and FBI agents found more than two dozen child sex workers in a 2005 bust of stops northeast of Harrisburg, Pa.

In the past, protective wives of truckers have created bumper stickers depicting cartoon lizards stomped under a boot with words such as "lot lizards not wanted." Smith fears that these well-intentioned efforts only contribute to a culture that views trafficked girls as predatory and less than human rather than as victimized children.

Such perceptions can not only remove barriers of conscience for prospective johns but also set the standard for how law enforcement responds. Children victimized in trafficking rings often learn to accept or even embrace their circumstances—no matter the brutal treatment and exploitation of their pimps, who demand that every dollar of profit be turned over to them. As a result, many of the girls upon interaction with police are violent, withdrawn, or suspicious. They act like criminals and are often therefore treated as such.

Like Tanya, many of the sex-trafficking victims that come through the doors of SHI and its partner groups report that they have faced numerous arrests, charges, and even jail time. Buyers rarely suffer the same. "After two years, I can't find anywhere in the United States where they are arresting the men for this crime of the rape of a child," Smith said.

This past October, the FBI coordinated with local police nationwide in Operation Cross Country II to procure 642 arrests of individuals involved in the sex-for-hire industry. Of the arrests, 518 were prostitutes and 73 were pimps. The thousands upon thousands of johns necessary to fund such workers faced no repercussions. To its credit, the FBI sting also rescued 49 child prostitutes ages 13 to 17 and directed them to proper social service groups. The mission was part of the larger ongoing Lost Innocence Initiative, which has recovered 577 child victims since 2003.

But even the FBI's efforts fall woefully short of denting the problem numerically. Demand remains far too high to close even a significant portion of the spigots of supply. "There's a saying on the street that a drug can be sold once, a girl over and over," Smith said. "And the younger they are, the more money they get by the hour."