U.S. Rep. John Shimkus (R-Collinsville), left, speaks at a human trafficking summit Monday at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville as SIUE associate professor and political science department chair Denise DeGarmo, center, and Covering House Executive Director Deidre Lhamon listen.
An action as innocuous as accepting a Facebook friend request can be a child’s first step into what many experts call “modern-day slavery.”
U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Illinois) convened a summit Monday at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to boost awareness of the growing problem, estimated by the United Nations to generate $9.5 billion per year in the United States.
“It can happen right next door to you,” Davis said.
Because of its interstate system, conventions and sporting events, the St. Louis area ranks 20th in the nation for sex trafficking, U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Missouri) said.
Wagner is the author of the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation (SAVE) Act, which would prohibit ads that offer sex with a child or adult involved through force or fraud. Last year, the backpage.com website made $4-5 million per month on adult services ads, Wagner said, showing the extent to which prostitution has migrated from the streets to the Internet.
Along with the SAVE Act, the House passed four companion pieces of legislation on May 20, including:
• The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act: Reallocates grants for trafficking deterrence and victims’ support; facilitates wiretapping in trafficking and child pornography investigations.
• The Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act: Encourages states to adopt safe harbor laws that treat minors as victims instead of criminals.
• Preventing Sex Trafficking and Improving Opportunities for Youth in Foster Care Act: Requires states to take steps to prevent sex trafficking among children in foster care; requires states to provide children with birth certificates and other personal documents when they leave foster care.
• International Megan’s Law: Requires law enforcement to notify other countries of the international travel of registered child sex offenders.
“We’re trying to broaden our net to make sure children are safe,” Wagner said.
Wagner said public-private partnerships play a key role in combating trafficking, such as hotels putting a hotline number on bars of soap during the Super Bowl.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, about 300,000 children are at risk of being prostituted in the United States; the average age of a child trafficking victim is 13 to 14. Pimps generally control four to six girls and annually make $150,000 to $200,000 per child.
“It is a horror that is hiding in plain sight,” Wagner said. “They thrive on ignorance and silence and exposing their crimes is a first step toward solving this terrible problem.”
That task falls to FBI intelligence analyst Derek Velazco, who said pimps are adept at finding easily controlled victims. Many child prostitutes were sexually abused and find a sense of stability with their pimps. In one case, a pimp threw a birthday party for a girl who had never had one; another convinced a girl God wanted her to be a prostitute.
“They are master manipulators,” Velazco said.
One option for victims who escape traffickers is Covering House, a nonprofit organization in St. Louis that provides a refuge for survivors. Director of Operations Lindsey Ellis said helping them can take years, but her clients’ resourcefulness and resilience are encouraging.
“As long as they have fight, they have hope,” she said.