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Abused and exploited

The digital age offers predators new opportunities to lure young girls into sex trafficking, and many victims have few places to turn

Abused and exploited

A 19-year-old woman who has been working the streets for five years breaks down after being detained by the Los Angeles Police Department. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Associated Press/Photo by Patrick Semansky

A survivor of sex trafficking (in gray) hugs the executive director of Samaritan Women, a faith-based ministry that partners with victims as they reintegrate into society.

Associated Press/Photo by Martha Irvine

A man arrested for prostitution solicitation in Minot, N.D.

Victor M. Posadas/The Orange County Register

Shannon Forsythe

Sarah had always found it suspicious that her neighbor was making $400 after an hour of “cleaning house.” There was something about her neighbor—the things she said, the way she behaved—that set off icky déjà vu. That neighbor reminded Sarah of her “girlfriend” at age 11, someone who had forced her to perform sexual acts with other boys while she watched. “Watch that lady,” she told herself. “She’s bad.” 

But then Sarah (WORLD agreed not to use her real name to protect her privacy) ran into financial troubles. She was a 20-year-old with nobody to turn to for help: Her father had disappeared, and her mother had kicked her out the moment Sarah turned 18. It was just she and her older sister living hand-to-mouth in a rented apartment, watching the unpaid bills stack up. 

That’s when her neighbor sniffed desperation. She beckoned Sarah with a wink and a smile, “I know how you can make good money quick,” and revealed how: sex with strangers for quick bucks. She then offered to hook Sarah up with some clients. Sarah agreed. Why not? She’d been molested and abused multiple times since she was five. Her body had already done such things for free—so earning several hundred dollars for what she’d already done? Sounded like a decent deal to her.

But Sarah never got much pay for her services. Her neighbor kept coming up with reasons why she deserved Sarah’s earnings. She’s the one who booked Sarah that job, she’d say, and she’d remind her, “You would have been in the streets if not for me.” Sarah’s bills remained unpaid.

When she finally had enough and told her neighbor that she wanted out, the woman threatened to expose Sarah to the Christian ministry that employed her. Nobody at work knew that she was being pimped out on the side. That was one of Sarah’s talents: Growing up in a legalistic Christian home, she knew how to put on a prim and proper front. But inside, she felt like trash. If she could only scrabble $15 for her body, how much more was she really worth? A john once told her, “This is the only thing you’re good at,” and she believed it.

What happened to Sarah is a form of domestic sex trafficking. Victims can be male or female, 40 or 9 years old, living in wealthy suburbia or a gang-ridden inner city. The exact number of trafficking victims in the United States is unclear, but there are rough estimates. In 2014, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline received reports of 5,042 potential human trafficking cases—71 percent were sex trafficking cases, and about 31 percent involved minors. Foster, homeless, runaway, and pregnant youngsters are at highest risk. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates more than one-third of the 1.7 million runaway children each year are lured into prostitution or pornography within 48 hours of hitting the streets. The Department of Justice believes about 300,000 children in the United States are trafficking victims.

Human trafficking is primarily a crime of psychology. Predators have an uncanny sense of their victims’ desires for love, attention, and identity. A “Romeo pimp” whispers compliments into the ears of a girl hungry for love. A runaway child longing for security might meet a charmer who promises, “I’ll take care of you, so long as you stick with me and do what I ask.” Many pimps even make their victims call them “Daddy” while they calls the victims “Wifey.” Some young women might believe they found a business partner while receiving none of the profits. That’s “grooming”—a process of training, manipulating, and abusing an individual into total submission.

Many pimps belong to local gangs that see enormous profits in human trafficking for very little risk. Sometimes, these pimps straight-out abduct a girl on the streets. Oftentimes, they send a woman who has proven her loyalty enough to become the pimp’s henchwoman. She may blend into schools, malls, even churches to scout out vulnerable, easy-trusting females who think they’ve found a cool new friend.

Particularly for young people, their smartphones, tablets, and computers become virtual workshops for grooming and recruiting. Typically, a teenager thinks she’s chatting with a cute boy online through popular social media apps such as Kik, Facebook, or Omegle (tagline: “Talk to strangers!”), or for boys, on online games such as Grand Theft Auto or World of Warcraft. He or she does what most naïve teenagers do: share personal information about interests and location, and upload pictures and videos of themselves and their friends. A predator couldn’t ask for a better marketplace.

“We’re really at a unique time in history,” said Opal Singleton, who, as training and outreach coordinator for Riverside County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force, has sat with distraught and devastated parents who could not believe their child had become a trafficking victim. “Never before has there been this much competition of influences on our kids’ morals, spirituality, self-image, and sexuality. We have perfectly normal parents handing their child devices that provide access to hundreds of thousands of strangers around the globe.”

One mother, after attending Singleton’s presentation on online predators, confronted her daughter—a high-school senior with a 4.0 GPA—just days before she had planned secretly to fly to Ireland to join an apparently 28-year-old guy she had met online through an Xbox game. He later disappeared when mother and daughter demanded more concrete information. The perp doesn’t even have to tell the girl much, Singleton said: “He gives her just enough information that she wants to hear, and she fills in the blanks to fit her own fantasy.”

THE CHALLENGES in combating domestic trafficking are many: The sex market is shifting from street alleys and strip bars to online, where perpetrators are harder to track and prosecute. Most pimps transport their “stable” of girls from county to county, which makes it hard for authorities to organize long-term sting operations. Even if they bust a truckload of underage girls, the victims are usually too terrified, distrustful, or brainwashed to admit they are trafficking victims, so the police cannot detain them. 

This has led many law enforcers to change their focus to catching crooks by helping the victims first. Lt. Dan Pratt, as part of the Long Beach (Calif.) Police Department (LBPD) Vice Investigations team, oversees a team of officers who click through websites that advertise sex for money and then go undercover to meet and arrest the prostituted person. But instead of shutting her in a metallic-cold interrogation room, they sit her on a comfortable couch, buy her snacks, and chat about movies, music, current trends—whatever piques her interest and trust.

“At first the girls looked at us like we’re crazy, because we’ve never talked to them using that approach before,” Pratt recalled. Previously, interactions between law enforcers and prostitutes were sterile and brief, and the police thought of the women or girls as “prostitutes,” “child prostitutes,” “juvenile delinquents,” or “runaways”—but never victims.

That’s changing. Law enforcers are realizing that most of these girls or young women are trafficking victims, which is why Pratt’s team isn’t out to prosecute but rescue them. In 2014, the LBPD vice squad handled 24 cases of human trafficking, rescuing 29 minors and arresting 26 individuals. The typical age range of these victims was 18 to 22, but the team has been rescuing more minors recently. The youngest victim they found was 11. 

Almost all the girls tell the officers that they never wanted to be in the sex trade but they can’t get out, nor do they know where to go. One girl said, “I was gone for several days, and nobody came to look for me. When I came back, they looked at me like they didn’t care. They didn’t care, so I didn’t care.”

That’s what Shannon Forsythe, founder of Run 2 Rescue, a California-based nonprofit that aids domestic sex trafficking victims, realized: “We used to just go out into the streets, but then we realized we can’t pull them out without having a place for them to go.” But Forsythe also saw that almost 90 percent of trafficked girls in safe houses—both secular and faith-based—leave and drop right back into their previous life. 

Discouraged, she prayed, “Lord, if you’re calling us into this mission, if this is where your heartbeat is, why are these girls turning back to that life?” Forsythe then decided what these girls needed was a family home, not a group institution where every girl competed for attention and sometimes even recruited others for her pimp.

In 2014, Forsythe launched Anchors of Hope, a Run 2 Rescue project that trains churches and faith-based communities to “adopt” a victim for an entire year. Instead of housing a group of traumatized girls together, Anchors of Hope separates them into individual Christian families who have been vetted and trained by Run 2 Rescue staff. Each girl also regularly meets with four team members for mentorship and interdisciplinary skills, while other local Christians provide them various networks of social, legal, medical, and educational support.

It’s a messy, grueling program, because a lot of these girls also struggle with substance abuse, emotional trauma, and stunted maturity. “You’re stepping into a really dark area,” Forsythe said. “The oppression, the nightmares my girls have, it’s just demonic. This is a warfare.” 

One girl was beaten so badly by her pimp that he thought she was dead, so he tossed her into the dumpster. She awoke, climbed out of the dumpster, and limped back to her pimp, because she knew no other options. Many girls tell Forsythe, “Fake love is better than no love.” 

That’s why a focus on God has to be “first and center in everything,” Forsythe said. “Without Christ, we are not seeing the growth and restoration in them as quickly. Their transformation makes leaps and bounds when there is Christ, when the girls see that God has forgiven them, that He loves them, that the old has passed away. That’s what they want—they want a brand-new, fresh start.”

THE EVENING Sarah met Forsythe at a Bible study and learned about Run 2 Rescue, she made the crazy decision to talk to her. Her cell phone kept vibrating with service calls and text messages from her pimp that night, but she ignored it.

At first, Sarah tried to present her situation as a hypothetical case, but Forsythe saw right through her. She gave Sarah a 30-second choice: “You can either come with me, or you tell somebody right now about what’s happened to you, because if you don’t, I fear I’ll never hear from you again.” So Sarah confessed to her Bible study leader and thought that was that. 

But Forsythe somehow got Sarah’s contact number and called her the next day. They dined at a Mexican restaurant, and that night, Sarah voiced things she’d never admitted out loud before. Throughout the meal, she could hardly eat: She worried about how her pimp would react, about whether her co-workers would find out, and about whether Forsythe was judging her. Then she wondered why she should even care what Forsythe thought: “This person,” she thought, “is just one more person who’ll go, ‘Whatever!’ and leave.” 

So Sarah decided so long as she kept showing up, she could blame Forsythe if she stopped showing—“But she didn’t. She always showed up.” Sarah kept waiting to feel the strings tug—didn’t everything in life come with strings?—but Forsythe and her team never asked for payment, never asked for anything except to tell her to receive and enjoy: “This is how the Lord wants to bless you.”

Six months later, Sarah joined the Anchors of Hope program. After 15 years of living in a haze of prescription pill abuse, being sober meant she finally had the mental clarity to feel all the emotions she’d suppressed for so long. Overwhelmed, she started cutting herself again, but her “anchor family” caught it at once. They walked with her through all her shame, guilt, and anger and helped her to deal with her emotions in a healthier way. Now 22, Sarah is still sober, almost debt-free, and a volunteer at Run 2 Rescue. 

All her life, even at the moments when she’d considered suicide, a little voice kept telling Sarah, “It’s going to get better.” She’d cry back, “Oh yeah? When?” Then four months into her program, a turning point began: Sarah, the woman who never felt loved in her entire life, finally recognized God’s unchanging, unconditional love in Christ. Soon after, she heard that little voice cheer: “It’s getting better.”

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in Los Angeles. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.