Over just one week in the middle of August, a multi-agency team in LA County recovered eight minor victims of sex trafficking between 15 and 17 years of age in Operation Summer Rescue. The children have since been placed in protective services and are receiving care, however we know they will face a long road to recovery. The terrible toll this crime takes on children is not surprising. One survivor described how she suffered physical and psychological wounds, an eating disorder, and PTSD. She asks why we have not identified child trafficking as a public health issue. This is a question we have been trying to address at ECPAT-USA, most recently in our Alternative Report to the United Nations.
The Report is part of a periodic review of the United States’ implementation of the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children. One recommendation is for the U.S. Government to invest in prevention programs that educate youth and address the demand for trafficked youth so that we can begin to reduce the incidence of harm. Early intervention before the harm has occurred is not only cost effective, but can ultimately protect children from ever being victimized. One way in which we can achieve this goal is by addressing child sex trafficking as a public health problem. In public health, there are three stages of prevention: primary, secondary, and tertiary. The current prevention response to child trafficking for the most part can be defined as the tertiary stage, seeking long-term solutions to help restore or comfort those that have been severely injured. Secondary prevention seeks to minimize the impact of injury that has already occurred. While primary prevention initiatives are designed to keep children from ever being victimized. Truly taking a public health approach entails undertaking primary and secondary prevention.
If we can reach victims at an earlier stage, the intervention has the potential to be more successful because it reaches victims when less emotional, mental or physical damage has occurred. The ECPAT report identified two meaningful prevention strategies that the U.S. Government can take: stopping demand by fully funding programming that hold buyers accountable for their crimes; and incentivizing and encouraging states to educate children at risk both in the classroom and out-of-school by training teachers, parents, and first responders to identify the risk signs of trafficking. There are two upcoming opportunities to incorporate these strategies in national federal policy. First, individual CACs and State Chapters can take action by calling on your Members of Congress not only to support the reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act but also to fund end-demand programs that have already been authorized, but never funded. Second, child protection professionals can sign the Generation Freedom Platform petition, which asks the next President to make a substantial investment in the fight against human trafficking. With increased resources, we can finally begin to make advancements in the development of prevention programming triggering a decline in child trafficking.
At ECPAT-USA we have seen first hand the efficacy of education programs through our Youth Against Child Trafficking (Y-ACT) empowerment program in New York City where in its first year two children self-identified as victims. Our students are learning about not only trafficking and healthy relationships, but perhaps most importantly that “trafficking can happen to anyone.” The goal is to equip children with the knowledge so that they are empowered and can identify risky situations. The call for increased attention to prevention of child sex trafficking is urgent because as demonstrated by Operation Summer Rescue, we can find a child living in exploitation every single day. Until we start to reduce the number of victims we will still be trying to restore shattered lives.
Faiza Mathon-Mathieu, Esq., is the Director of Public Policy & Government Relations at ECPAT-USA, a non-profit anti-child trafficking organization based in the United States.