ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOX) – As you’ve heard on KMOX this week, countless children are being forced into an underground sex trade.
Sold night after night. Are we ready to stop it?
In an undercover video from Shared Hope International, a suspected pimp eventually admits he has girls younger than 14 — for a price.
Suspected Pimp: “If you pay the price you can get what you want, and I’ll get it for you.
Suspected Pimp: “You want something really young… that 200… it’ll cost you just a little more than that…”
Plenty of buyers are willing to pay.
“It is a lucrative business,” points out Kimberly Ritter, Trafficking Initiative Coordinator for Nix Conference and Meeting Management.
Ritter says selling sex is big money. “The average pimp has four to six girls… he is making about 250,000 a year on a girl. And the fact is that without the demand we wouldn’t have the problem… and men buy girls.”
Special Report: Children For Sale
“I don’t think they view them as human beings. Just a commodity,” adds Dedee Lhamon, Founder and Executive Director of Covering House.
Layman says traditionally, its been the women who have taken the fall. “Years ago, when things like this went down. It was the prostitute first, then the pimp, and then way down the line it was the john, if anything happened,” she says. “We know that if there wasn’t a demand from purchasing… there would be no problem.”
Layman seems skeptical that people are truly oblivious. “You can’t have a girl in a room all night long and men coming in and out without luggage and someone not be aware of what’s going on.”
A study of eleven cities by the Justice Department reached the conclusion that communities tolerate sex trafficking; that a demand for younger victims drives recruitment of girls; and that minor children are more often arrested for prostitution, than offered help or treatment for the violence they’ve suffered.
Investigators KMOX interviewed admit they have had to change their mindset.
Sgt. Adam Kavanaugh with the St. Louis County Police says “really the last couple of years, [we’ve] started targeting the people running these girls instead of looking at the girls as suspects all the time.”
In recent ratings by Shared Hope International both Missouri and Illinois did score well for laws meant to enable first responders to quickly identify victims and get them help.
“The first responders, law enforcement or health care are really the people that are going to recognize the victims,” says Lt. Angela Coonce, Commander of the Intelligence Unit for the St. Louis City Police.
She says officers are receiving new training to help them look beyond the obvious. “We might go on a domestic violence call that we were able to recognize could be a human trafficking case.”
At the start of the year the Intelligence division took over trafficking cases because of their complexity. “Typically these cases take a considerable amount of time to work because the traffickers are very good at hiding themselves,” says Coonce. “We sometimes run into the victims, it takes us awhile to identify the traffickers, there’s a lot of nicknames involved.”
She wouldn’t get specific, but Coonce did add the department is moving toward sting operations as a more effective way to bring down traffickers.
What law enforcement and prosecutors say is also desperately needed is more support for victims. “Certainly its good to prosecute the traffickers, but unless when we’re done at the end of the day, if the girls don’t really have a chance to rebuild their lives, then I don’t think we’re really doing our jobs,” Coonce says.
In the last year St. Louis has seen its first shelter for victims of trafficking, as well as new resources for counseling and support. With an estimated 300,000 children in the United States estimated to be at risk, it’s barely enough.
Some question whether most people are really ready to open their eyes.
“I think it’s easy to allocate trafficking victims as juvenile delinquents, or prostitutes, or basically dehumanize them as opposed to look and see. Look a little bit deeper and you’ll see people who have been through horrific traumas, sometimes multiple, sometimes from early on in their lives,” explains Cindy Mallott of the YWCA. “I think it’s so much harder for us as a community to wrap our mind around, these are victims. I think it’s easier to view this as, these are problematic people, they keep getting themselves into these situations.”
International Crisis Aid’s Pat Bradley says they’re not just runaways. “You’ve got to ask yourself the question, what are they running from?”
Bradley says it points to bigger problems in our communities. “They’re either running away from physical, emotional, verbal abuse, or they’re running away because of poverty,” he says.
Katie Rhoades, founder of Healing Action Network says all too often we may only know them as statistics. “A lot of times, they end up as Jane Does,” she says.
They’re not allowed in “regular” society adding, “once you’ve been in the life, if you have any sort of record shown you’ve been involved in prostitution, good luck getting a job. It’s practically impossible.”
By the time you see an 18, 19, 20 year old walking the streets, she may have been in the life for years.
Advocates want you to see the 12 or 13 year old.
Rhoades says, “the number one thing that the public can do, is stop assuming that its just prostitution. Because if you cannot look past that girl as just prostitute, you’re not going to see any of the signs.”
And someone will think it’s alright to have Children for Sale.
International Crisis Aid
YWCA Sexual Assault Center
The Covering House
Rescue and Restore Coalition
International Institute – Human Trafficking
Healing Action Network
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