The Color of Sex Trafficking
A Statement on Race, Class, and Sex Trafficking in the Nation’s Capital
In the past month, the media has exploded with stories of the thousands of missing children reported each year to the police in Washington, D.C. The numbers and other facts may have been misleading but the truth remains that a disproportionately high number of these children come from the two poorest areas of the nation’s capital.
To better clarify and hold true to what FAIR Girls sees in the daily lives of the exploited and trafficked girls we serve, we have held a series of recorded conversations with survivor leaders who work with FAIR Girls’ team as advocates.
Girls in D.C. are scared. The media storm has swept over the roots of why children leave home or become missing in Washington, D.C. and the impact is that many girls now wonder, “Am I next?” To be clear, not every missing girl is being sex trafficked. Most are not kidnapped. However, at FAIR Girls, we know that disconnected and homeless youth are seriously at risk of being trafficked. The city is on high alert and child welfare and court agencies have referred eleven new minor girls to FAIR Girls. All had previously been reported as missing.
What has been portrayed as an epidemic of missing girls is really a series of systemic injustices that play out in the lives of thousands of children in D.C. and around the country. Sex trafficking has a color in the national capital region. We must together be brave enough to say why.
In ten years, FAIR Girls has served more than 1000 young women and girls who have survived human trafficking. The stories of the clients FAIR Girls sees every single day at our drop-in or living in our safe home are the evidence that sex trafficking occurs where there is an absence of rights, opportunities, and safety. Approximately 90% of the girls we serve in the nation’s capital are girls of color, 70% have or were in the child welfare system, and 80% experienced homelessness prior to being trafficked. Our clients are 10% immigrants and 20% identify as LGBTQ. They are wrapped up in the child welfare system and have experienced domestic violence (74%) and child abuse (90%) at alarming rates. They suffer debilitating bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and suicidal thoughts at exponential rates.
“Children are running from or to something. They are scared and think they will be blamed or locked up if they are caught after running away. I feel like when people say that kids are just running because they feel like it, they miss the whole point. Kids run because they do not feel loved, some feel like there are too many people in their house, or they are afraid of someone in the house, or they are looking for something, likely love, that they do not get at home. Then, they get caught up in the juvenile system and they feel like no one is trying to help them.”
– Alona Sindile, FAIR Girls Survivor Advocate
When a newly identified survivor comes to FAIR Girls (90% are American girls from the general DMV area), our case managers sit down with each one to learn her story and understand her needs. The first barriers we tackle are those that likely made the girls vulnerable toward sex trafficking in the first place. These include access to medical services, educational opportunities, transportation, job opportunities, healthy food, and affordable fair housing. Specifically, here in the nation’s capital we at FAIR Girls have seen the girls we serve suffer the impact of the “School-to-Prison Pipeline;” school push-out of girls of color; the disparate impact of city planning on affordable housing options and neighborhoods of color; the lack of healthy and fresh food options in neighborhoods of color; the closing of schools and after-school programs that keep kids engaged and safe while parents (often single) work multiple jobs; the lack of efficient public transportation from neighborhoods of color to parts of the city where higher paying jobs exist; and the lack of identification documents arising out of reasonable fears regarding the immigration status of themselves or their family members.
It is FAIR Girls’ experience, that while a significant portion of the number of children reported missing every year are teens that have run away multiple times, many more girls are never reported missing at all. Furthermore, when a child involved in the juvenile justice system runs away from home, they are not treated as “critical missing.” They are treated as a fugitive of the law. Consequently, many children who are missing are not treated as they should be, but rather, they are further stigmatized and marginalized without ever exploring why they are running away or missing. Thus, to accurately reflect the population of children that are missing in the nation’s capital we must first change how our juvenile justice system responds to youth who leave home or foster care and then begin working to reduce their barriers to services and safe housing.
FAIR Girls is now a member of the newly formed Mayor’s Task Force on Missing and Exploited Children. Along with the Mayor’s office, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), child welfare agencies, and other community agencies, FAIR Girls continues to advocate for survivor-informed solutions, firmly rooted in the experiences of our clients, to these issues.
“City officials need to understand where people are coming from and what is going on. They have to show more compassion and understanding. There was a part where I got so deep in it that I thought that if people were going to sell me then I’d sell myself. I started to think that was all I was worth. Thank goodness I had the ability inside me to remember my dreams and goals that I had as a child. That is how I got out. I went to the hospital and they got me to FAIR Girls. But, a lot of girls don’t know help is out there and so they stay where they are suffering.”
– Tutu Scott, FAIR Girls Survivor Advocate
It is heartening that the MPD police report indicates that almost all of the children reported missing are eventually found and safely returned home. But, the real questions we should be asking is “Why are so many children running away and where are they while they are gone? and “Where are they sleeping and who is giving them food?” Teens of color, like FAIR Girls Survivor Advocate Tutu Scott, who have survived not only being “one of the thousands missing,” but also being sex trafficked as a teenager have valuable insights to add to this discussion. They can share the reality of what led them to become “missing,” what held them enslaved to a trafficker, and what they needed to free themselves. Their voices should be the loudest and most respected in this discussion. We should be listening to them, heeding their warnings or we are doomed to perpetuate this cycle in our city.
“Teens need real choices and to understand where they can go for safety. They need drop in centers, shelter, mentors, after school programming, chances to overcome abuse at home or in school. Teens need to have real options and play a role in their own life plan. “
– Tutu Scott, FAIR Girls Survivor Advocate
It is time to connect the dots between the real barriers that communities of color in the nation’s capital disproportionately face every day and the alarming numbers of missing children, especially girls, from those communities. FAIR Girls has seen first-hand how these barriers make girls in these communities vulnerable to the traffickers ready and willing to exploit them. It is no secret to those working with victims in this sphere that human trafficking happens along the fault lines of rampant inequality. We can no longer afford to ignore or step over those fault lines. If we truly want to reduce the number of missing, exploited or trafficked children in this city, we must acknowledge the inequalities right in front of us, we must recognize and address the reality that in this city girls from disadvantaged communities of color are disproportionately at risk of being trafficked. Perhaps most importantly, we must engage ourselves in a full, frank and factually accurate discussion, alongside the survivors from these communities, if we hope to effectively combat the scourge of child trafficking in the nation’s capital.
Authored by: Andrea Powell, Hannah DeMartini, Erin Andrews alongside Alona Sindile and Tutu ScottPress Releases