As of this morning, there were 14 open cases of missing juveniles in Washington D.C. Police there say the number is not unusual, but the interest in them is. A social media campaign has evolved demanding that law enforcement and the mainstream media do more to disseminate information about these kids and facilitate their recovery amid growing speculation that they are victims of a sex-trafficking epidemic.
While there is no direct evidence yet to support that suspicion regarding the Washington kids, it shouldn't be ruled out. A Maryland mother told a Washington D.C. TV station this month that her teen daughter, who has autism, was picked up from a Baltimore high school by a man she met online, then driven to Washington, where she was trafficked for six days by various men in different locations before she was recovered.
Sex trafficking is a pernicious crime that all parents should better understand.
Unlike made for Hollywood movies on sex trafficking, victims are infrequently kidnapped. More often, traffickers will portray themselves as prospective lovers or faux family in order to lure their victims away from their social support system. Once isolated, the trafficker will typically keep the victim under control through a cyclical process of ingratiation, and mental and physical abuse, putting them to work on the streets or in hotel room meetings hastily arranged through sex sites on the Internet.
Given the manipulative nature of the crime, it is often difficult to discern sex trafficking victims from consenting sex workers. As a result, these commercial sexually exploited women and children can be erroneously criminalized, denied services and/or revictimized by the very systems that should be helping them escape and recover.
As such, it is important to convey the following messages for any missing kids, whether they left home voluntarily or not, and their families:
First, to the kids: Someone who truly loves you would never use you for their financial benefit. As human trafficking survivor Brooke Axtell, whose nanny arranged for men to rape her, said during a 2015 Grammys presentation: "Authentic love does not devalue another human being. Authentic love does not silence, shame or abuse." You will always have options, and there are people who will help you, unconditionally, even if your immediate family will not. It is critical that you reach out to authorities at your first opportunity.
Second, to the parents of these missing children: It is important for you to understand that human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, coercion and deception for the purpose of exploitation. Even if your child appears to have left on their own accord or consensually, it does not mean they aren't being victimized. Even runaways can be trafficked; these actions are not mutually exclusive. In fact, runaways are at high risk of eventually being trafficked or coerced to engage in survival sex. As such, parents, you should never stop advocating for your missing kids.
And finally, to the Americans concerned about sex trafficking: In order to prevent human trafficking, protect victims and prosecute offenders we need to discontinue the business-as-usual approach to this modern day form of slavery. Speak out, share stories on social media and advocate on behalf of the missing by contacting your representatives.
In order to truly combat sex trafficking, legislators, law enforcement and anti-trafficking service providers should focus on:
• Reducing the motivation of offenders through deterrence, by making punishments more certain, swift and severe;
• Empowering potential targets or victims through the provision of social services and reduction of erroneous criminalization;
• And strengthening communication, cooperation and data-sharing between sex websites and police to make investigations more effective.
We must take action now, while momentum is strong, to quickly recover these children and before more go missing.
Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco's book, "Hidden in Plain Sight: America's Slaves of the New Millennium," is contracted for publication in 2017 with (Praeger/ABC-Clio). Her Twitter handle is @MehlmanOrozco.