The recovery of 105 children and the arrest of 150 individuals is a hard won victory in the fight against sexual exploitation of children. The FBI, along with state and local law enforcement agencies, are to be commended for their dedication and determination to rescue these victims from a life of abuse, assault, degradation and sometimes death. With Operation Cross Country, lives were saved and justice caught up with those who violently controlled and manipulated those children and sold them for sex.
To date, the Innocence Lost Initiative, of which Operation Cross Country is a part, has successfully rescued more than 2,500 innocent children. Prosecutions resulting from the work of these 66 dedicated task forces have led to the conviction of more than 1,300 pimps, madams and their associates who profit from the exploitation of these children.
We must remember that these children are victims; they are too young to have consented to have sex. Pimps market and sell children for sex openly at popular online classified sites, at truck stops and on the streets in every American city and many towns, both in populated and rural areas throughout the country.
Many of these children don’t have concerned family members looking for them. About 60 percent of the children reported missing to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, who are also likely child sex trafficking victims, come from foster care or group homes that they ran away from. With no real means of support or way to survive on their own, they are lured into a life of being trafficked for sex. As one pimp convicted of child sex trafficking said, “With the young girls, you promise them heaven and they will follow you to hell.”
Sex trafficking is one of the most common types of commercial sex exploitation. It is a global problem. The commercial sex industry victimizes girls, boys and transgendered youth. Pimps and traffickers target vulnerable children and lure them into prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation using psychological manipulation (promising to meet the child’s emotional and physical needs), drugs and/or violence. This manipulative relationship tries to ensure the youth will remain loyal to the exploiter even in the face of severe victimization. Many of these relationships begin online before progressing to a real-life encounter.
Despite the seriousness of the problem, the incidence of commercial child sexual exploitation is difficult to measure. Empirical research has not yet conclusively defined the scope of the problem today. However, we do know from previous studies that pimps prey on children as young as 12 years of age. One study in 2001 estimates that in North America alone, as many as 325,000 children are at risk each year for becoming victims of sexual exploitation. It is estimated that 30 percent of shelter youth and 70 percent of street youth are victims of sex trafficking. They may be coerced in prostitution for “survival sex” to meet their daily needs of food, shelter or drugs.
The words “sexual exploitation” often evoke a reaction of silence — our inability or unwillingness as a community or society to speak openly about this horrific and unacceptable crime. That silence may send a strong message of uncaring to those who need our help the most — the children. They may assume that we are not taking this seriously or that they will not be believed. The exploitation of one child results in many victims within the child’s family, and the effects may spread throughout the community. Steps must be taken within families, schools and the community to ensure that this insidious crime does not get a chance to set its tentacles into the fabric of our lives. It all starts with open communication.
There are many more children to be rescued.
Joe Hoy is the Eagle County sheriff.