WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers are exploring ways to combat child sex trafficking, a crime that child safety advocates estimate is affecting several hundred thousand American children each year.
Law enforcement officials, child safety groups and a victim shared their views on the problem with members of a House Appropriations subcommittee at a recent hearing.
Lawmakers heard from Stephanie Vu, a human trafficking survivor who now works with the Shared Hope International and Youth for Tomorrow anti-trafficking groups.
Vu told lawmakers that at the age of 12, she was "chosen."
She said an older boy that she met at a party lured her away from her family and into a life that included stripping at a club.
Vu said that later, the boy threw her out of his house on a bitterly cold night after she refused his demand to "sell herself for sex." She said she spent several hours outdoors shivering and pacing the streets before finally deciding to climb into a "buyer's" car.
"That moment changed my life forever," said Vu. "There were three men that night and at the end of it, I couldn't stop vomiting," she said.
The Polaris Project, a Washington-based group that fights global human trafficking, said U.S. sex trafficking has been found in a wide variety of venues, including residential brothels, fake massage businesses and online escort services.
In a statement, the group said the average entry age into the commercial sex industry is between 12 and 14. It said children who become victims of sex trafficking sometimes encounter challenges that include isolation, criminalization and a lack of social services to help them recover from their trauma.
Cindy McCain co-chairs the Arizona Governor's Task Force on Human Trafficking. She cited figures from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children as she told lawmakers that child sex trafficking is a "low risk," "high reward" enterprise.
"NCMEC also estimates that a pimp can make between $150,000 and $200,000 per child per year," said McCain. "The average pimp has four to six little girls," she said.
The perception of the prostitute walking the streets persists. However, Fairfax County, Virginia police detective William Woolf told lawmakers more and more child sex traffickers are actually using online tools.
"They commonly exploit social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and things of that nature to be able to target their recruitment efforts, making them a lot more effective and efficient," he said.
Woolf also said his department has seen an increase in trafficking activity, largely because of the Internet.
"We see other Internet-based companies, like Backpage.com, that is openly and, in some senses, legally advertising commercial sex," said Woolf. "It gives these traffickers opportunities to advertise to the general public, these sexual services and to advertise, essentially, our children online," he said.
However, Backpage said it cooperates with law enforcement efforts to find child sex traffickers. In a VOA interview, Backpage Attorney Elizabeth McDougall said the website is not the root of the problem with child sex trafficking.
"If Backpage shut down, the content wouldn't go away. It would go to an underground or offshore website," she said.
Urban Institute Research Associate Colleen Owens said law enforcement officers have had some success in curbing online trafficking by moving to shut down websites and, in some cases, by posing as potential clients to catch traffickers.
But she said in a VOA interview that a broader approach is needed to fully address the problem.
"To really tackle this issue, it involves a lot more than just using online sites to further investigate tactics," said Owens. "I think really trafficking requires a more comprehensive multi-disciplinary approach than maybe some other forms of crime or similar to some other forms of crime," she said.
Dr. Lois Lee is president of Children of the Night, a California-based organization that helps youth who have been victims of sex trafficking. She said law enforcement efforts alone won't resolve these problems.
"We need people to really do something, to develop programs. Homes for kids. Schools for kids," said Lee.
Lee also said there should be more emphasis on helping young children in unstable homes, a problem that she said could make them more vulnerable to trafficking as they get older.