By Rep. Karen Bass
When a judge sentenced Ariel Castro to life in prison -- plus 1,000 years -- for kidnapping, raping and enslaving three young girls for more than a decade, it closed a chapter in one of the most harrowing tales the country has ever seen. This will hopefully bring closure to these young women, but for many more the nightmare will continue. Thousands of young victims will go on hiding in plain sight, unsure of whether or not they will ever have their freedom again.
Over the weekend authorities arrested 150 pimps in sting operations across 76 cities. Authorities successfully targeted truck stops, casinos, hotels and websites to rescue young women. Similar operations have saved many more young girls over the years.
Much more should be done to prevent young girls from being vulnerable prey for sex traffickers and predators. Broadly speaking, human trafficking occurs when people profit from the control and exploitation of others. This includes what some mischaracterize as child prostitution. Our nation's kids do not simply choose to sell themselves on the street, they are victims manipulated and coerced into a life of sexual assault and commercial rape.
A good starting point for reform would be taking a look at the connection between the foster care system and child sex trafficking. Traffickers often provide foster youth with the attention and reinforcement that can oftentimes be elusive during a life spent bouncing from home to home. They shower young girls with gifts and attention to help lure them into a life of illegal activity. Sadly, older foster youth perpetuate the cycle when traffickers use them to recruit younger foster youth into prostitution.
Some estimates show 300,000 children are at risk of becoming victims of domestic sex trafficking each year, with foster youth comprising as much as 80 percent of victims. Many states report abuse occurring while youth are in foster care or group homes, which pimps target as hubs to recruit vulnerable girls.
By better coordinating our efforts at combating child sex trafficking and its link to the foster care system we can more effectively curb the flow of young women into lives of imprisonment at the hands of a trafficker.
In Congress there is bipartisan legislation that can help to fill this void. The Strengthening the Child Welfare Response to Trafficking Act directs the Department of Health and Human Services to create guidelines that assist child welfare agencies. Agencies would be required to report missing or abducted children to law enforcement within 72 hours. HHS would also report to Congress on the prevalence of trafficking among foster youth and make recommendations for both supporting and monitoring local efforts to curb child sex trafficking.
These are commonsense no cost measures government can take now to help young girls from falling victim to traffickers.
Historically Americans have behaved as though child sex trafficking is a phenomenon that grips other nations far away from our own shores. Nothing could be further from the truth and its time our policies reflected this fact.
Currently, we do a better job of providing resources for health, education and housing for foreign victims than we extend to young girls here in the United States. Due to shortages, many law enforcement officials have reported having to house young girls in motels and other unsafe environments which keep them accessible to pimps and more likely to be forced back into sexual exploitation.
Domestic victims do not receive the same legal protections as foreign-born sex trafficking survivors. For example, many domestic sex trafficking victims are housed in high-security prisons and charged for prostitution, effectively treating them as though they are the criminals. This can make it very difficult for them to find employment later on and rebuild their lives.
If these girls are foreign born, they are more likely to be recognized correctly as rape victims instead of prostitutes. They are given access to a broader array of services including aggressive prosecution of their attacker instead of being treated like they are the criminal.
America must confront this threat to the health and stability of an entire generation of young women. We all can become better informed about what sex trafficking looks like and demand our own young women get the same protections we offer to the world.
Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., is a member of the House Judiciary Committee and serves as Co-Chair of the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth.