Jaycee Lee Dugard's case is every parent's nightmare, a troubling reminder that the evils of this world are not confined to dark alleys in big cities. Behind Suburbia's illusion of safety lurks an often seedy and troubled reality. It is a world of sexual trafficking, where children are sold as sexual commodities.
Eleven-year-old Jaycee was hurrying to catch a school bus when she was snatched off the street by convicted rapist Phillip Garrido. For the next 18 years, Jaycee was held captive in Garrido's backyard in a nondescript neighborhood in Antioch, Calif. He allegedly fathered her two children.
But this type of tortured reality doesn't stop with Jaycee Lee Dugard. For example, Debbie, a straight-A student who belonged to a close-knit Air Force family living in Phoenix, Ariz., was 15 when she was snatched from her driveway by an acquaintance-friend. Forced into a car, Debbie was bound and taken to an unknown location, held at gunpoint and raped by multiple men. She was then crammed into a small dog kennel and forced to eat dog biscuits. Debbie's captors advertised her services on Craigslist. Those who responded were often married with children, and the money that Debbie "earned" for sex was given to her kidnappers. The gang raping continued. After searching the apartment where Debbie was held captive, police finally found Debbie stuffed in a drawer under a bed. Her harrowing ordeal lasted for 40 days. Three of her four captors have now been caught and charged (one awaits extradition).
Miya was 19 years old when a man and a woman, posing as agents for a modeling company, kidnapped her and forced her into a life of sexual slavery. Her captors also advertised her services online. Miya was eventually able to escape but not before suffering the trauma of captivity, prostitution and other harrowing abuses.
These young women somehow managed to escape the underground world of sexual slavery and trafficking in the United States. Others, however, are not so fortunate.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), approximately 797,500 children go missing every year. That works out to roughly 2,185 children a day. Many of these young people never find their way home again. Too many become victims of sexual trafficking and prostitution.
A 2009 report by Shared Hope International indicates that more than 100,000 children under the age of 18 are currently being trafficked in the United States. Equally disturbing, the United States Department of Justice reports that approximately "293,000 American youth are at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation."
This scourge affects more than just runaways, children from broken homes and those forced out onto the streets. As Debbie's case illustrated, even the most well-cared-for children can fall prey to sex trafficking and become global sexual commodities, a source of disposable income for the men and women who profit from their exploitation. Incredibly, the average age of girls forced into prostitution and the sex trade is between 12 and 14.
Numerous efforts have been made to combat this growing problem. In 2003, the FBI and Department of Justice's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section joined with NCMEC to launch "Operation Innocence Lost." At the time of its creation, 14 field offices in high-volume trafficking areas were opened, specialized training courses were offered, and over 350 agents were trained. As of October 2008, Operation Innocence Lost had grown to 28 task forces and working groups, recovered 577 children, seized over three million dollars in assets, and achieved 365 convictions.
One of Operation Innocence's success stories involved cracking a large sex trafficking operation in Houston, Texas. In late August 2009, five men and one woman were indicted on 16 counts of conspiracy and sex trafficking of children, as well as forcing and coercing adults to engage in commercial sex acts. Girls as young as 16 were held against their will, prostituted and beaten. The captors operated behind various business façades, including modeling studios, health spas, massage parlors and bikini bars, and promoted the girls' services through sexually-oriented websites and print publications.
Unfortunately, while Operation Innocence Lost has experienced some success, the sex trafficking industry continues to flourish and does so under the auspices of legitimate businesses and through internet advertisements.
There are things that can and should be done to put an end to this atrocious and perverted business. One way is to introduce much harsher punishments for the clients of these services. For example, in 2008, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act was enacted. It imposes harsher criminal penalties for traffickers and provides increased resources for victims in the United States.
These are steps in the right direction, but efforts to crack down on traffickers should be reinforced with longer prison sentences, higher fines, and the reach of the law should be expanded to include even minor accomplices in these crimes.
But we must move beyond merely passing laws. Putting a stop to the sexual trafficking of young people must become a top priority of federal and local police agencies. It can largely be eradicated if the full force of the law is focused on ferreting out those who prey on young people.
Also, more needs to be done to raise awareness of the dangers posed to children. This means that the media must publicize the issue on a wide scale. Moreover, children should be further warned of the dangers of these situations in school, in our religious institutions and our homes. This means that parents and communities need to be informed as well. Hearing the chilling stories of victims like Jaycee, Debbie and Miya not only provides insight into the inner-workings of the sex trade in this country, but it may also encourage other survivors to speak out.
The only way to truly combat sex trafficking is to expose its seedy underbelly, harshly punish perpetrators and bring justice to the victims. Yes, as collective communities and as a nation, we must make sexual trafficking a priority. The future of our country hangs in the balance.