by Sue Ann Rybak
— The first article in a series
When more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped from a secondary school in Chibok on April 14 of this year, it sparked international outrage and triggered a campaign on Twitter, using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. Local schools and businesses rallied to show support.
Unfortunately, the voices of American teenage girls who are sold in plain sight every day in Philadelphia neighborhoods, including Germantown and Mt. Airy, are silenced. Even worse, these school-age girls are arrested and treated as criminals.
Most people would be horrified to know that girls as young as 13 years old are sold daily as commodities. Sex trafficking is alive and well and happening in our backyards.
According to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, “Sex trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.”
Abington resident Don DeVore, director of Human Sex Trafficking Treatment for VisionQuest, said that when people think about victims of sex trafficking in the United States, they usually think of girls who are brought illegally into this country to be trafficked. He added while that does happen, girls as young as 13 years old are being trafficked in our own backyard.
VisionQuest is a national employee-owned, youth-rehabilitation organization that provides education, mental-health, child-welfare and juvenile-justice services.
“The most important point I want your readers to know is – and this is critical – that these girls come from homes next door,” DeVore said. “They come from Chestnut Hill. They come from Abington. It’s not just some impoverished neighborhood over there.”
The FBI estimates that more than 100,000 girls are victims of sex trafficking every year in the U.S.
Its website states, “The United States not only faces an influx of international victims but also has its own homegrown problem of interstate sex trafficking of minors.”
Philadelphia is ranked among the top 15 cities in the United States for domestic sex trafficking because of its proximity to other major cities, such as New York, Washington, D.C., Atlantic City and Boston.
While the majority of domestic sex trafficking victims are runaways or thrown-away youth who live on the streets, the Internet has made buying sex as easy as ordering a pair of shoes off Amazon.com. The Internet is the number one platform used by traffickers to exploit victims. The ads often appear as individuals working independently to solicit sex, when in reality they are often victims of sex trafficking.
One recent ad on Backpage.com said:
“Lacey**Come have some fun with me** Amazing at Everything – 22
Hey guys I’m Lacey. A sexy Dominican and black treat. What you see is what you will get. I’m 5’3”, 140lbs with a nice juicy booty. Everything you ever wished for is rite here, so Look no further. No Rush No Drama No Bs
Incalls $40 $60 $100 $160 2 girls $160
Call me 2678880906
Poster’s age: 22
Location: Mt. Airy”
According to AIM Group, a trade organization that has been tracking prostitution advertising since August 2010, Backpage has 70 percent of the market for prostitution ads.
DeVore, 64, who has worked in juvenile services for more than 30 years, said there is no typical victim profile – victims cross every socioeconomic, ethnic and racial group. The father of six said advocating for victims of sex trafficking has become a personal mission for him.
“Human trafficking is now the biggest form of slavery internationally,” DeVore said. “It is one of the biggest criminal enterprises – second only to drugs. Sex trafficking is a $32 billion industry that has very organized methods by which they recruit girls, retain them, drug them, abuse them and keep them on the street.”
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that between 100,000 – 300,000 children are at high-risk of becoming victims of trafficking.
DeVore recently helped to open Sanctuary Ranch in Florida, one of the first treatment centers in the country for trafficking victims. It was named for the trauma model developed by Chestnut Hill psychiatrist Dr. Sandra Bloom.
Bloom, who co-wrote “Destroying Sanctuary: The Crisis in Human Service Delivery Systems” with Brian Farragher, said the sanctuary model is an innovative approach to helping adults and children heal by creating a safe organizational culture. It is a trauma-informed, whole-system approach to organizational change.
The model focuses on the victim’s whole environment – not just medication or counseling. Bloom and Farragher state in their book that the pressure for today’s social service systems to do more has resulted in an environment that is crisis-oriented and authoritarian.
Bloom said victims of sexual trauma can only begin to heal after they feel safe and protected.
DeVore said “the trauma experienced by a girl involved in sex trafficking is equal to being a prisoner of war.”
He noted that traffickers often recruit children into sex trafficking by posing as their boyfriend.
“One of the most common practices among traffickers right now is to recruit girls from malls like Willow Grove Mall or King of Prussia Mall,” said DeVore, whose son used to attend Chestnut Hill Academy. “It’s not unusual for a blue-eyed blond girl to be a victim of sex trafficking.”
He said predators will often look for girls in groups of three.
“In girls of three, there is always sort of the odd one out, and eventually they approach her and say, ‘Hey, I think you are absolutely adorable and would love to be able to get to know you better – you’re not like your snotty friends,’” he said.
He said that typically the recruiter is a handsome 20-something guy, who lavishes the young woman with affection, and she’s usually 14 or 15.
“Within a matter of 10 minutes, he knows where she goes to school, knows about her family and her problems within her family,” DeVore said. “He then begins to very methodically isolate her and separate her from her family. They are very skilled and often get a bounty for each girl they bring into the trade.”
He said within a matter of days, he convinces her to trust him. He added that often traffickers will videotape the girl having sex with them and threaten to put it on the Internet if she doesn’t cooperate with him.
“If she refuses to cooperate with him, he’ll take her to a motel where she will be beaten, drugged and forced to have sex with many other men,” DeVore said. “It’s a very common practice that parents really need to be aware of.”
He added that not all traffickers are men. Often traffickers will be a “bottom,” a victim herself who usually has been trafficked the longest and has earned the trafficker’s trust. Bottoms collect money from other girls, discipline them, seduce unwitting youths into trafficking, and handle the day-to-day business for the trafficker.
DeVore added that parents, teachers and other educators need to be vigilant for signs of sex trafficking.
He said traffickers often use code words such as “the game,” “daddy,” “wifey” or “the track.”
“If parents pick up their child’s cell phone and see ‘daddy’ or ‘wifey’ on the cell phone, which is very common language, they should be very alarmed,” DeVore said.
He added that traffickers will often tattoo girls on their neck, shoulder or inner thigh to mark their property.
DeVore said despite that more than 100,000 girls are lured and kidnapped into sex trafficking a year, there are less than 250 beds available for the treatment of these girls in the United States.
He added that Dawn’s Place in Germantown is the only safe house for victims of sex trafficking in Pennsylvania, and that it doesn’t take children victims of sex trafficking.
DeVore said one of the biggest misconceptions about women and children involved in the sex trade is that they are choosing to solicit sex. He said there needs to be more focus on arresting the pimps than the prostitutes.
He said that if a teenage girl is arrested for prostitution in Pennsylvania, she is likely to be charged and sent to a juvenile detention facility.
“We need to stop treating these girls as criminals and treat them as the victims,” DeVore said. “If a girl stays in sex trafficking about four or five years, which is pretty close to the average, she will have been raped over 50,000 times.”