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Opinion

The Podium

The fight against sex trafficking

When you read the following words, try to picture the face you see saying them.

“I was recruited into sexual exploitation. He [the pimp] provided a lot of attention, he seemed like he was very courteous and sweet…. He wanted me to have the best things. A lot of the things that people call “selling a dream” — that’s what I got… But it didn’t take me long to realize that he was a very violent person. He was addicted to crack cocaine … So I learned very early that he needed to have his drug money, or my face was going to be in the wall.

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“The most difficult part of my victimization was the sense of hopelessness.”

Chances are, you are not imagining this survivor of sex trafficking as the person she actually is: not a grown woman but a girl, coerced into sexual slavery at age 10.

She is one of thousands of American girls who are sexually trafficked every year in our country, many at very young ages. Significantly, these are girls whom our communities have a special responsibility to care for, because a disproportionate number have been in under state supervision in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. This is a dark version of an American girl’s story that many of us do not want to face.

The Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality recently released a report on domestic sex trafficking that we hope will shine some light on this brutal violation of girls’ human rights and show a promising path forward. As our report reveals, the typical approach to sex-trafficking cases is to treat these girls as prostitutes: criminal offenders, rather than victims. This consigns them to the world of law enforcement — even though under our laws they are not old enough to consent to sex.

But there is reason to hope. Massachusetts, in particular, has taken a leadership role in the fight against sex trafficking. The state’s 2012 commercial trafficking law requires the child welfare system to design a plan to protect every child victim and, importantly, it creates the presumption that any child charged with prostitution is not a criminal, but a victim. Last year, a state task force on human trafficking issued recommendations on expanding victim services programs and safe housing facilities. Most promisingly, as the task force recognized, innovative work is being done in Suffolk County by a unique team of dedicated experts — an effort that can serve as a model for the rest of the state, and indeed the country.

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This group, called the SEEN coalition (Support to End Exploitation Now Coalition), was the state’s first inter-agency effort to fight sex trafficking. It includes representatives of law enforcement, the child welfare system, the district attorney’s office, the public defender’s office, service providers, and many others. SEEN created a set of guidelines on how to respond to victims quickly and comprehensively, and provide them with the support and care they need to begin the long process of healing.

SEEN is remarkable for its inclusionary approach, its consensus-based decision making, and its emphasis on team-building and resolving internal conflict, all of which reinforces members’ commitment to the team and its mission: to help empower victims, and to view these girls as survivors of a crime and active partners in determining the best path forward.

The need for teams like SEEN is clear from the sheer number of children it has helped in Suffolk County alone. Since it began in November 2005, 391 sexually exploited children — almost all of them girls — have been referred to the coalition. And 68 percent of all referrals, which include at-risk youth, come from the child welfare system.

It is efforts like SEEN, which weave the expertise and commitment of a broad cross-section of agencies, that can most significantly improve our trafficking response by wrapping a team of support around each girl to identify her as a victim, assess her needs, determine appropriate treatment and placement, and just listen to her — all without resorting to the criminal justice system.

SEEN has made a difference to victimized girls in Suffolk County. One survivor remarked: “[SEEN] was important to me because it showed me I wasn’t alone... a community of people [were supporting] me that I knew had my back. It made me feel like I mattered.”

SEEN’s model should be scaled up to serve all the nation’s girls who have endured this brutal violation of human rights. It’s time to show all of our girls, across the state and across the country, that they are not alone.

Peter Edelman, who served as assistant secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration, is a professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and the faculty director of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality. Rebecca Epstein is executive director of the Center.

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