Wednesday, 23 March 2011

CNN’s Amber Lyon investigates teen trafficking in America

CNN’s investigative reporter, Amber Lyon hosted a documentary entitled “Selling the girl next door.”
According to their press releases, this broadcast would:

“Selling the Girl Next Door takes viewers into the world of underage American girls caught up in the violent sex trade. Hundreds of thousands of girls under the age of 18 are ensnared into lives of prostitution annually, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Many are runaways or “throwaways” trapped in “the oldest profession” by pimps who sell them using modern sales and marketing techniques.
In a year-long investigation, CNN correspondent Amber Lyon reveals the devastating realities of the business of underage sex – speaking to a young teen runaway sold online from a Las Vegas hotel, the men that obsessively seek Internet sex connections, and women long into careers as sex workers who were trafficked as teens or children.”
Did this program live up to the promise?

A superficial examination of the surface of a much greater problem

That’s my considered opinion.
Once again, like the FBI’s “Innocence Lost Campaign” this so-called in-depth investigation deals only with the most visible elements of a dark trade. We are told for the thousandth time, this problem affects mostly “runaways” and “throwaways.” In other words, the victims themselves are partially to blame for their own victimization.
Yes, in my experience many of the victims have deep underlying problems, but to suggest the child trafficking trade which gobbles up hundreds of thousands of children every year affects only those who are already at risk and on the streets is to deny both the scope and the organization of a much greater industry. Of the victims I’ve worked with, most were not runaways, not street kids – they were taken. Until we recognize this basic truth, we will never begin to deal with this growing threat to our children.
Please, if you have not already done so, take a moment to read the hub, “The Rape Trade” linked here for your convenience, before reading further. The scope of child-trafficking extends far beyond what you’re led to believe.
waiting, waiting, waiting...
Welcome back.
Now you understand this is a multi-tiered industry, and individual pimps and their victims, those for sale on the internet and on the streets represent only one facet of a burgeoning and highly profitable business.
Further, I take exception to the headline “teen trafficking.” The most insidious aspect of child trafficking is that the true victims of this hidden trade are far younger than that. And for all the obvious reasons, there is no overt advertising on the internet, no pictures, no headlines of “new booty in town.”
Certainly communication exists, but according to those involved in the difficult attempt of ferretting out pedophiles, it is all in code. It is completely underground and involves children as young as infants and up to puberty.
Worse, it is widespread.
I am currently in correspondence with a now-grown mother of six who was prostituted out at the age of five. Is she an anomaly? Sadly, no.
For those that live long enough to pass puberty, the next step is the internet, the streets and a pimp. “Teen trafficking” is old for the child sex trade.
Having said all this, I want to commend Ms. Lyons for an excellent expose of the on-line trafficking of underage girls. What she fails to see is that many, possibly most were not runaways or throwaways, but survivors of a much earlier exploitation.
With all this in mind, let’s take a look at what she found.

Amber sells herself online

Using an existing ad as a guide, Amber sets up a posting for herself on the site “Backpage,” using all the ‘codes’ that denote a young girl. Fresh! Innocent! New face! (As though it is the face for sale.)
She uses a picture of herself wearing a bikini at the age of fourteen.
“It was awkward,” she says, laughing, “to call my father and ask him for a photo of me when young to post online…”

The Inter-net pimps

Apparently, when Craigslist was finally made to understand they were a party to the exploitation of children, and reluctantly and under duress removed the “Adult Services” section from their website, Backpage became the site of choice for pimps and their wares. .
Before you ask, don’t they care about the suffering and destruction they are a party to, the answer is no. There’s a dollar to be made. Nor do the customers. Explains one law-enforcement person:
“The girls are just objects to these men, to be used as they wish and discarded. Everyone involved from site owners to pimps is making big money selling these children. There is never any thought to their welfare. “
How effective is this advertising?

Amber's Backpage posting

The johns, or as they should be called, the would-be rapists of children

Within four minutes of posting her ad, Amber’s phone begins to ring.
She makes it abundantly clear she is underage, sometimes claiming to be sixteen, other times seventeen. She asks one caller, “How old are you?”
“Thirty four,” he answers.
“I’m sixteen,” Amber says.
“Oh,” responds the caller and hangs up, probably smelling a rat. The nature of the ad makes it evident he is soliciting the services of a young girl, and no streetwise pro would announce that fact on a cell phone.  Those that pursue sex with children are all too aware of the traps set by law-enforcement.
The viewer can’t help but be shocked by the number of calls Amber takes in a very short time, most of them explicit about what they want.
Then a real lulu calls up. The accent is Southern, the voice most definitely that of a fully-mature man. He calls himself Ron.
“I’m underage,” Amber tells him. “I can’t drink. I’m seventeen.”

I want to....

"Why on earth would I want to have sex with a seventeen-year-old woman?" asks the john in a tone that more than suggests he's hoping the answer is a list of good reasons to do so.
"No one would have to know." Amber.
"That's just what I was saying." The john.
"So what do you want?" Amber
"What do I want? I want to f*** you. Don't you want to f*** me?"

A cross-country tour

You can go to an interactive map posted on the CNN site -- linked to the right -- and follow Ms. Lyon’s travels across the country:
“Share Lyon’s coast-to-coast journey – from Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee and Nevada – trailing runaways, finding their families, meeting sex workers, and visiting a “johns’ school” where convicted solicitors are forced to face the social and criminal consequences of their actions.”
At one point she visits the famous Paradise Ranch in Nevada, interviewing brothel owner Dennis Hof. He has much to say about pimps and none of it good. Amber Lyons interviews the ranch’s sex workers, all of them mature women, all of them veterans of the seedier side of the sex trade, and though we are expected to be surprised but only a complete innocent would be, most of them survivors of childhood sex exploitation.
One woman spoke of her experience of serial rape at age ten, another at eleven, both of them with tears running down their faces as they recall. One thing is sure, these women did not choose the sex trade as a rational career choice.
Lyons is quick to point out that these sex-workers in the legal brothel are protected, receive one half of their earnings, medical benefits and ongoing health screening.
At this point I begin to lose interest in the program. This is very old news, and there is no one with any connection to the sex trade, even those who only counsel the victims, who doesn’t believe legalized brothels are the answer – at least for those grown up enough to make the choice.
But then, the program becomes interesting again.
We go to visit girls recently “rescued” from the sex trade, a term for which you can read arrested.
The girls you see below, handcuffed, shackled and wearing chains around their middle range in age from 12 to 16 -- too young to drink, to drive, to consent to a sexual transaction but apparently not too young to be locked in a bleak cell and walk about in chains.
They are children. They are the victims!
Haven't we lost sight of something here?
Do you share my outrage at seeing these young girls, already victimized, traumatized and needing help treated as felons? It curdles my blood.
Lyons shows us the minimal cells in which the children spend most of their time, a stainless steel toilet with a sink mounted directly above it, a concrete shelf with a four inch mattress, a rough blanket and maybe four square feet of floor space. The walls are cinderblock; the narrow window is barred and the steel door has a reinforced glass window, allowing the girls no privacy at all. Whenever they are out of their cells, they wear chains.
I am shocked. I am appalled. This is beyond my experience, not to mention my understanding. Where I come from, minors involved with the justice system are not treated this way. The provinces of Canada in which I’ve worked have special facilities for at-risk children, and while they may be secure, they are most definitely not prisons. There are no chains and shackles.
These girls need counseling, need help, evaluations, professional assessment and above all, a chance to be children again.
What is going on here?

Meet Judge Voy

Las Vegas has a severe problem to contend with when it comes to prostitution of all varieties, and certainly with the trafficking of children. Perhaps the underage sex trade fits in with the whole “what happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas so let it all hang out and party hearty” mentality.
It’s Vegas’s own version of sex tourism.
For whatever the reason, more underage prostitutes end up facing the courts here than most places. (And large as those numbers might be, they are but a tiny fraction of those still being peddled on the internet, or the street.)
“Las Vegas, Nevada (CNN) -- Every week, Judge William Voy of the Clark County Juvenile Court in Las Vegas holds a special session for underage sex trafficking victims picked up by police in Las Vegas.
Most are runaways, controlled by pimps. And every week Voy faces the same problem: where to put them. Under the law they're considered victims.
The right thing to do is get them help, but most times he can't, because there's nowhere to put them.
"We can't get to the next level," says Voy. "And it's extremely frustrating."
For those hundreds of thousands of girls in need, according to a Justice Department report released in the fall, there are 50 beds in facilities capable of dealing with their complex and deeply entrenched problems.
“For five years, Voy has been trying to change that in his city by building a specialized residential home for the hundreds of girls who go through his court every year.
"It's not a detention center, it's not an institution," says Voy, showing us architectural drawings on a vacant lot where the house would be built. "It looks like another wealthy homeowner in Vegas, right? And that's what we want it to look like. These kids are messed up in a lot of different ways. And they need a lot of help."
He has private donors willing to pay for the building and the land, but Clark County has so far refused to come up with the $750,000 needed to staff the place with uniformed officers. -- CNN press release
A new bill that passed both houses of Congress last year would provide $45 million over four years for these kinds of services, a small amount of money given the need, but at least a start.
But that bill, the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act, never made it to the president's desk, and now that there's a new Congress, it will have to start from square one.
My own research found out that present federal funds for victims of trafficking are reserved for foreign women and children.
American girls are left out in the cold. According to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there are anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 underage American girls being sold for sex in America. According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) around 14,000 to 17,000 women and children are imported into the country for the sex trade.
One wonders at the strange setting of priorities here.

Lyons' interview with a thirteen-year-old victim of trafficking

The girl pictured to the left is thirteen and has been prostituted off and on for over a year. She is bound to a pimp and "the game" with that typically unfathomable, compulsive attachment we often find in young trafficked girls.
Amber Lyons interviews her.
What first struck me about this girl is her flat attitude and complete lack of emotion. This is common in abused children. She responds to Lyon’s questions with a listlessness, a lifeless quality.
“How many men would you see in a day?” Lyons
“Two to five. Most days two or three.” Girl responds with eyes focused up, and a grimace about the mouth.
“How did that make you feel?” Lyons
Another grimace. Eyes darting about.
“Didn’t that make you feel bad?” Lyons
“Well yeah. It was pretty bad. I felt…. Yucky.” Another grimace.
She could have been answering questions about a field trip to the zoo.
I watched and thought about how I would evaluate this girl. First, appearance: She does not seem either nervous or self-conscious. Quite the contrary – she appears to be elsewhere. She chews her lips. She does not make eye contact either with Lyons or the camera. She is detached. Her responses are mere echoes of Lyons’ leading questions. The girl is quite overweight.
Everything about her suggests she has long ago given up her sense of self. Her weight would lead me to believe she was sexually abused at some point in the past, before the running and prostitution – weight is protection in the minds of young children. Her facial twitches, the movement of her mouth at the end of each sentence, the not-quite-at-home look in her eyes – this is a very troubled girl.
I would believe that during sexual encounters, she is removed, far away, not inside her skin. The johns do as they wish, but it is not happening to her, only to her body.
Much about her reminds me of a girl of similar age who ran away from a good foster home, an excellent placement with a single women who had taken courses and trained to provide care to girls recovering from the streets. When I asked her why she’d left the home and returned to the streets, she said, “I couldn’t stay there. It was too nice.”
I would guess both girls suffer from severe self-loathing and no self-esteem, seeking confirmation of their low self-image in the abuse, danger and humiliation of the trade. Finding affirmation in punishment, courting it, deliberately seeking degradation… seeing herself as bad, dirty, low and only good for….
Certainly, this girl’s mother doesn’t understand. During Lyon’s interview, the mother spoke of her daughter as uncontrollable. “No matter what, the minute she finds a chance, she’s gone – running.” There is, she insists, no reason for it. She shows us the girl's baby pictures.“I don’t know why.”
There’s definitely more than meets the camera to this story.
Personally, I find the mother’s willingness to speak of her daughter’s life as a prostitute on national television quite telling. Let alone giving permission for the girl, herself, to be interviewed.
I’d like to write to her and ask her why she’s done this. I wouldn’t. It’s hard enough for a girl to come back from such degradation without splashing the whole affair across the entire country -- and much of the world.
The mother seems more interested in absolving herself of blame than in helping her child. When this girl grows up, how is she going to feel about the public exposure? “When I was thirteen and messed up, I was arrested for prostitution and my mother gave permission for CNN to put it on TV.” I don’t think I’d forgive such an action.
I see in this a clue as to the dynamics that led the child to such a life.
When last we see this girl, she stands before Judge Voy, weeping and crying like the little girl she is, saying “All I want to do is go back home.” (Home is Detroit.)
The mother is immediately negative.
We see the frustration on the judge’s face. His options are limited. I’m sure he sees what I see in the child. She is badly damaged. Wounded. Messed up.
And there’s nowhere for her to get what she needs.


Selling the Girl Next Door was produced by Steve Turnham. Courtney Yager was associate producer. Kathy Slobogin is managing editor for CNN’s Special Investigations and Documentaries unit. Scott Matthews is the executive producer for the unit.
I applaud CNN for this attempt to wake up the public to what goes on every day, in every city. One day, I hope we stop thinking this a problem of the unfortunate and nothing to do with us.
A true measure of the evolution of a society is how the weak among us are protected. Surely this applies even more to our children -- our future.
Thank you for reading. Lynda M Martin
CNN documentary -- Selling the girl next door,

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