Donna M. Owens
February 1, 2019
The poem from Bunny*—a teenage sex trafficking survivor—reads like a slow burn of anguish.
The storms form as my heart bleeds/patiently waiting to feel accepted and loved/by people who were supposed to care for me. …
She writes further of “nightly terrors, screams,” and a “soul made with peace but never at ease.”
Bunny*, whose name has been changed here to protect her identity, is among hundreds of young people between the ages of 11 to 24 who have come through the doors of Courtney’s House in Washington, D.C.
Founded in 2008 by Tina Frundt, Courtney’s House is a non-residential “drop-in” center that provides long-term therapy, counseling and other services for those traumatized by sex trafficking.
A victim of sex trafficking is an individual who has been forced into the commercial sex industry (such as prostitution) and held against their will by force, fraud, or coercion. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the average entry age into the sex industry is just 12-years-old.
“Most of the kids we see are African American and some Latinos. The average age here is 12 to 19,” says Frundt, a Chicago native in her 40s who is herself a survivor of child sexual abuse and trafficking. “It is a big problem in the Black community. I believe we are in a crisis.”
Frundt collaborates with various partners who range from Homeland Security to the FBI and local law enforcement. She says in many cases, “grown men” are sexually violating “young girls.” The staff has worked with a 12-year old girl whose 27-year old ‘boyfriend’ actually was her pimp. And a 15- year-old girl impregnated by a 29-year-old man. “We also see many boys being sold to men,” Frundt adds.
Youth being sexually trafficked include runways, homeless and those such as Bunny* who are in foster care. Indeed, many experts say the foster care system—where children can be bounced around from place to place or inadequately supervised in group homes—is yielding disproportionate numbers of youth being swept into the sordid world of sex trafficking.
Frundt, who was in foster care before being adopted at age 12 by an “amazing family,” knows firsthand that systemic shortcomings can expose vulnerable youngsters to molestation and other forms of abuse. That in turn can lead to trafficking in strip clubs, brothels, via escort services, or on the streets.
Yet she stresses that not all youth who unwittingly enter what is sometimes termed “the life” hail from impoverished or turbulent backgrounds.
“A popular misconception is that these kids don’t have homes. Some do, and we get lots of referrals from parents who love their children,” Frundt says.
That said, her team also sees situations wherein families themselves are the problem. Within their centers’ population, pimp-controlled trafficking is most common, followed by gang-controlled trafficking, but there is also family-controlled trafficking.
Courtney’s House saw 10 such cases in 2017. One harrowing testimonial was shared by a 17-year-old young woman in a fundraising letter the center previously sent to supporters:
“I remember being 10 years old and my mother putting makeup on me and telling me she loved me. Then opening her bedroom door where a man sat waiting there for me. My mother then put me in the room and closed the door. She said it wouldn’t take long.”
January was designated National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. But the issue of sex trafficking is one advocates say demands attention all year long; it has garnered significant headlines of late.
Millions watched the explosive Lifetime documentary “Surviving R. Kelly” produced by writer/activist dream hampton. In the six-part docuseries, multiple Black women and their families accused the R&B singer of acts ranging from sex abuse to torture. Lawyers for Kelly, who stood trial in 2008 on child pornography charges but was not convicted, have publicly said he denies the allegations. Despite calls by #MeToo women’s advocates and others to #MuteRKelly, his music continues to get airplay and some fans are still showing their support.
Reportedly, the District Attorney in Fulton County, Georgia—where Kelly has a home—is investigating possible criminal activity; other prosecutors have asked the public to step forward if they have information to share.
Meanwhile, the case of Cyntoia Brown in Tennessee has also captured the spotlight. Brown was 16 years old when she was tried and convicted as an adult for killing Johnny Michael Allen, 43, who solicited her for sex. She’d reportedly been forced into prostitution by a violent pimp. Fearing for her own life, she shot Allen, took what he owed for her services and fled.
Cherisse Scott is founder/CEO of SisterReach in Memphis. Her youth ambassadors sent letters of support to Brown. In an email, Scott said the high-profile case sheds light on what is happening in various parts of the country around sex trafficking. For instance, Tennessee has some of the highest prevalence of the crime in the southeast U.S.
Scott noted many Southern states have epidemic rates of abject poverty, youth homelessness, an uptick in policies impeding women’s reproductive rights, and lack of protections for victims of intimate partner violence. And she notes many states lack the type of sexual health education that addresses risky behavior, condom negotiation, and consent.
“…This cocktail of oppression disproportionately impacts women, teens, and people of color and is what made Ms. Brown’s plight not only possible, but more likely,” she said. “We can see how the system failed her by looking at the social and safety conditions that can lead to trafficking… her case offers us an opportunity to look at the problem of human trafficking in more than a siloed way. We will only be spinning our wheels until there is a commitment to dismantling the systemic conditions that created Cyntoia Brown’s reality.”
Sex trafficking falls under the broader umbrella of human trafficking, which the United Nations defines as “recruitment, transportation, harboring, transfer or receipt of persons by improper” means. It includes child labor, domestic servitude, forced marriage, and more–sometimes termed modern-day slavery. While numbers vary, it is estimated that anywhere from 20 to 30 million people are victimized both in the U.S. and globally.
In 2018, more than 14,000 calls were made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which is administered by the Polaris Project for the federal government. But advocacy groups have indicated those numbers represent only a portion of the estimated victims impacted.
Brown has served 15 years in prison, but a groundswell of support that came from child and legal advocates, civil rights groups, celebs, and others, recently led to (departing) Tennessee governor, Bill Haslam, granting her clemency. Brown is slated to be released from prison on August 7, 2019; she is to serve 10 years of probation.
Moreover, there’s evidence a high percentage of missing children of color are part of the sex/human trafficking trade. “Forty percent of all persons missing in America are of color – many are our young adults who are victims of sex trafficking,” says Natalie Wilson, co-founder with Derrica Wilson of the Black and Missing Foundation, Inc. (BAMFI). The national non-profit, one of several Black-led groups that partner with Courtney’s House, works to bring awareness to missing persons of color and provide vital resources to their families and friends. They offer a free clearinghouse which profiles missing persons of color from across the country.
Wilson notes that the incessant demand for commercial sex is unable to be met so the “supply” must be forced and coerced. If a loved one is missing, especially a minor, she said, sex trafficking must be considered as soon as possible. “This crime is extremely lucrative and prevalent.”
Many experts say the Internet and social media has fueled trafficking as predators can follow young people on their platforms and attempt to lure them in.
Wilson agrees. She warned that parents and caring adults must look out for indicators in order to protect youth. They include going off with a “boyfriend” and unknown new “friends” and isolating friends and family. Or landing a job in say, modeling or performing, that seems exciting and too good to be true.
New or increased drug use; controlled travel such as having a “driver” and constant cell phone /computer use are other signs.
“Victims of trafficking cannot save themselves, they need their loved ones, law enforcement, and the community to make a safe place for victims and a hostile environment for traffickers. This will require a sustained effort from all of us,” says Wilson.
Representative Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) is among the members of the Congressional Black Caucus who are pushing legislative solutions on Capitol Hill. They include two bills aimed at combating human trafficking on the nation’s highways.
“Commercial drivers play a central role in the fight against human trafficking, often serving as the first line of defense,” said Lawrence. “By strengthening systems to recognize and report trafficking, and closing loopholes to traffickers who seek to exploit our transportation system for their personal gain, we are making progress towards combating human trafficking.”
“This is an inexcusable crime,” the Congresswoman continued. “We simply cannot accept this as a new norm in our country.”
Frundt noted in her experience that while many Black and Latina girls may be pimped by men (or women) of color in their communities, their buyers are often Caucasian so-called “johns.” “I’ve gone with the girls to the police station and they look at [arrest] photos and pick their customers out. Some of these men have wives and children at home.”
Still, the issue of trafficking transcends race, ethnicity or background. Recently, a former Washington, D.C. police officer pleaded guilty to trafficking of two minors; and federal authorities recently announced dozens of arrests following a sex trafficking sting ahead of the Super Bowl in Atlanta; four victims were reportedly rescued.
To protect the safety of girls, boys, and transgender youth and all potentially affected, Frundt says it’s time for a massive intervention. “We need Black churches to help, we need elected officials, everyone in the community to solve this problem. It’s happening in plain sight, and we can’t pretend or hide it anymore.”
For help or information contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline. 888-373-7888. The 24-hour hotline for Courtney’s House is 202-423-0480.
Photo credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images