A new report says that more than 100,000 Americans under the age of 18 are victims of sex trafficking in the United States. While the illicit sex trade is often considered a scourge of the developing world, experts told lawmakers on Capitol Hill Tuesday that it is also a serious problem in the United States.
In an undercover operation, an activist with Shared Hope International, a group that rescues victims of sex trafficking, makes a deal with a pimp on a U.S. street. The scene highlights a serious problem known around the world - the prostitution of young women and children.
A new report by Shared Hope International shows how serious and widespread the problem is in the United States.
Former Congresswoman Linda Smith, Shared Hope's founder, explained the severity of the problem at a briefing hosted by the Congressional Victims' Rights Caucus.
"Our research showed that it happened all over the United States," said Linda Smith. "At first I thought, 'No, not in my town.' Yes, in my town."
The study documents cases of child sex trafficking across the country - from Florida to Nevada, in big cities and in rural areas.
According to the report, the average age of a child prostitute in the United States is between 12 and 14. Many have run away from home and are lured into the illegal sex trade by men who offer them shelter. Some become addicted to drugs - something their pimps use to keep them under their control. Beatings and physical threats are the norm.
But advocates for child sex trafficking victims say that despite these abuses, too often children are identified as criminals, arrested and put in jail or in juvenile detention.
Ernie Allen is President and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
"These kids are victims," said Ernie Allen. "This is 21st century slavery. They lack the ability to walk away. The pimps who use and discard them are the criminals, as are those who patronize them."
Advocates for child sex trade victims say that charging these children with crimes infringes on their rights and creates barriers to getting them the help they need. They advocate a system that protects and rehabilitates these children.
Republican Representative Ted Poe of Texas, Co-chairman of the Congressional Victims' Rights Caucus, told the panel that there are more safeguards in place for foreign victims of sex trafficking in the United States than there are for American citizens.
"If you are a foreign child and you are in the United States and you are involved in trafficking, the police will treat you as a victim of a crime," said Ted Poe. "But if you're an American and some trafficker finds you and abuses you and then sells you out through the United States, you're treated as a criminal."
The Shared Hope International report criticizes the U.S. Congress for failing to authorize more funding for social services and shelters for sex trafficking victims.
Congressman Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, says that it is always difficult to get funding through the regular congressional appropriations cycle. He suggested instead having organizations on the ground develop projects that could then receive some federal money.
"Talk to the faith-based folks in your district, talk to others who could be capable of providing shelters and ask them if they would be willing to go forward with a project, and you'd get the earmark for them," said Chris Smith.
Experts agree that the best way to fight sex trafficking is for law enforcement officials to focus on eliminating demand for the business.
They say that in order to accomplish this, more should be done to stop the buyers who pay for sex with children, including giving offenders much harsher prison terms.