The rescue of three Cleveland women, found after being enslaved for years, left us asking how such a horrific incident could happen in our communities, right in our own backyard.
The troubling fact is that there’s a silent scourge sweeping our nation, where vulnerable children are exploited as a commodity and sexually trafficked. It’s easy and comfortable to think that sex trafficking only happens elsewhere, far away, but the truth is that exploitation of American children occurs every day in nearly every city and town across this country.
The stories of victims of sex trafficking are the headlines you don’t see on the nightly news. Children who are targeted are the most vulnerable in our society, often forgotten or disregarded by a system that was established to keep them safe. The void of vulnerability is created when children experience abuse or neglect, and it grows when they are displaced from family relationships where there is love and security. Even before they meet a trafficker, these factors place children in a dangerously vulnerable state.
Last November, I met Withelma “T” Ortiz and listened as she told her story, one that is all too common among victims of sex trafficking. T was born to parents who were drug addicts and was placed in the care of child welfare at a very young age. She was shuttled from foster home to foster home — 14 in all before she was 10 years old — often experiencing physical and sexual abuse.
Scared and alone, she was drawn to a man who promised the love and security she had never had. It was in this vulnerable place that a godsend boyfriend turned into a nightmare. T was forced to sell her body on the streets. Her day wouldn’t end until she made $1,000 for her trafficker. If she couldn’t meet that amount, she was beaten.
T’s experience is remarkable not because her sex trafficking story is unique, but because she was able to escape at 17. She now advocates for kids just like her who are forgotten and alone. It’s time for our government to join her in her fight.
Together with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), I introduced a bipartisan bill that will begin to break down the barriers to ending the sex trafficking of children.
First, we need to do a better job of keeping track of runaways and missing kids. Our bill requires that child welfare agencies immediately report a child missing to law enforcement for entry into the National Crime Information Center’s missing persons database of the FBI. We also require these agencies to notify the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children every time a child is reported missing from foster care family homes or childcare institutions.
We also must treat children who are exploited as victims, not as criminals. Under the current law, children who are trafficked by someone other than a family member are not eligible for child welfare services. Instead, they are funneled through the juvenile justice system. In many cases victims are locked up, adding to the trauma they’ve already experienced. Our bill breaks down this barrier to treatment by stating that children who are trafficked are victims of child abuse and eligible to receive treatment and care through the child welfare system.
Finally, we need to better understand the scope of sex trafficking in America. We need to streamline and enhance data collection on children who have been identified as victims of sex trafficking. States need to work to better coordinate with other agencies. And developing evidence-based policies at the federal, state and local level must be a priority.
Our bill addresses the lack of data on victims of sex trafficking by requiring that state agencies identify and document each child who is reported as being a victim of sex trafficking.
Additionally, our legislation encourages states to find solutions to address the needs of victims, including placements in stable housing, treatments for sexual trauma, and other measures to help them reach a full recovery.
For too long, we’ve treated sex trafficking as if it is a problem in other places, for other countries. But it is happening here, and it is happening now. We can no longer close our eyes to the suffering of the most vulnerable among us. Instead, we must do everything in our power to make sex trafficking of children a thing of the past. Our bill is the first step down the path to accomplishing that goal.
Rob Portman is a United States Senator from Ohio.