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Helping the victims of American sex trafficking

By Peter Edelman and Rebecca Epstein

Friday marks the International Day of the Girl. The United Nations has set aside October 11 to focus on the discrimination and abuse that women and girls suffer throughout the world.

One brutal crime that demands a far more intensive worldwide response is commercial sexual exploitation. This problem is of crisis proportion, and each time it happens it amounts to selling the rape of a child for profit.

This illicit global industry has begun to receive some of the attention its victims desperately require. But a blind spot remains: American girls on American soil.

It is happening here, to our girls. By conservative estimates, 100,000 American children are trafficked each year. Many, though not all, of these victims lived at the margins of American life before they were trafficked. They were struggling against poverty, and often had histories of trauma, abuse, violence or neglect.

So although October 11 has been designated as a day of international focus, Americans should also turn their attention inward — where it is often most painful to look.

Marginalized girls are more vulnerable to being lured by a pimp's promises of money, food, shelter, drugs, admiration or love. Others are forced — kidnapped in their own neighborhoods, shopping malls or other public places that pimps target with cunning care. Once girls have entered the circle of trafficking, it is difficult to escape — whether they are physically held captive or bound by threats to themselves or their families, or pimps' other, often sophisticated, tools of psychological manipulation.

Whatever path leads them there, most of the victims in this country share one characteristic: They are American. So when we envision only foreign victims in a distant location, we are seeing sex trafficking through a distorted lens — perhaps because that distortion helps distance ourselves from the crime.

It is far easier to absorb the horror of young girls being raped for profit from the comfortable perch of moral certainty that it can't happen here, it can't happen to us.

But these girls are among us — sometimes just down the street. They attend our schools, live in our communities, reside in our foster care homes and move in and out of our child welfare system and juvenile justice system. They are our collective responsibility.

The fact that these girls are all around us means they are within reach. We can help them. But only if we identify who they are, understand their needs, and form multi-agency teams to help them.

Some public systems have already begun this work. Innovative efforts are underway in Connecticut, Ohio, California, Massachusetts and elsewhere to train staff about the commercial sex trafficking of children in their communities and to work together in task forces to identify victims, provide treatment and placement programs and help them build a viable path forward.

It is crucial that we scale up these efforts. Across the United States, child welfare systems, juvenile justice systems, schools, hospitals and other public systems need to work together in the fight against domestic sex trafficking. With local, multidisciplinary teams, they can develop ways to address victims' immediate needs in their community and, in the longer term, to gather data and monitor progress.

Government at all levels must fund these efforts. We must raise public awareness through media campaigns and ensure that anti-trafficking legislation helps foreign and American victims equally.

Each of us must raise our voice to insist that our government end the treatment of sex trafficking survivors as criminal offenders. We must instead view them as child victims of serial sex abuse — who need, and deserve, specialized support to help them rebuild after their trauma and live healthy, successful lives.

(Peter Edelman served as assistant secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration He is now a professor at Georgetown Law School faculty director of the Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy there. Rebecca Epstein is executive director of the center.)

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