More than 200 members of the religious and academic communities came together on March 26 at Fordham University to help combat local trafficking of girls for the sex trade.
“Human Trafficking of Young Women” was a joint effort between Fordham and the Coalition of Religious Congregations to Stop Trafficking of Persons (NY-CRC-STOP), a 5,000-strong collective of religious groups that advocate against a lucrative illegal business that lures vulnerable girls into a world of prostitution from which they may never escape.
In a keynote speech, Rachel Lloyd, founder and director of Girls Education and Mentoring Services (GEMS), a grassroots organization that supports 1,000 female sex trafficking victims annually, said that the most critical task is to educate an American public that erroneously views young prostitutes as criminals, rather than victims.
“When we see children from Thailand who have been trafficked, we are sympathetic,” said Lloyd, who was herself coerced into the German sex trade industry as a teenager. “But here in the U.S. there is a sense that girls who are ‘working’ must choose that life because otherwise they would leave.
“You don’t have to be chained to a bed to feel that you can’t leave,” Lloyd said. “We need to teach people to apply the same dynamic to sex trafficking victims as they apply to [kidnap victims]Elizabeth Smart or Shawn Hornbeck. If girls feel like they can’t walk through that open door, they might as well be chained to a bed.”
Somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of girls and boys who end up in the sex trade have been sexually abused by a parent prior to recruitment, Lloyd said. Since approximately 98 percent of the girls and women that GEMS serves are minorities, she added, it is impossible to ignore class and race in the argument of trafficking.
“It is easy in this country to feel like everyone can succeed if they want, that America is the land of opportunity and that you can ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’” Lloyd said. “Oh, really? Is it the same for everybody? That hasn’t been my experience. Living in the Bronx looks very different than living in Lower Manhattan. We are in the same city, but we do not share the same options.”
Lloyd recounted the story of a 13-year-old girl who went with a pimp simply because he was nice enough to let her sit in the front of his big car. Another, said Lloyd, was coerced because the pimp took her to a Red Lobster—her first time at a restaurant.
“These things make the girls feel special, make them feel loved,” Lloyd said. “You have to ask what happened to that kid [at home]to make her feel that’s the best it ever gets.”
GEMS works closely with the New York court system to help young sex trade victims break out of the illegal business and start to rebuild their lives. In a panel discussion following the keynote, Queens Supreme Court Administrative Judge Fernando Camacho recalled seeing teenage offenders “crying, with lifeless eyes” come repeatedly before his court for 20-day sentences before going back to their pimps.
“Sixteen years old, seven arrests within a few months? One day I said, ‘Stop the madness.’”
Camacho began to work with GEMS to place the girls in emergency housing and get them counseling, a non-criminalizing approach that was already being administered for certain drug offenders and mental health offenders. Under the Safe Harbor Act signed by Gov. David Paterson in 2008, such emergency and social services treatments are now mandatory for children caught in prostitution.
“The way we had been dealing with these girls in the past as a criminal justice community failed miserably,” Camacho said. “I am hopeful that in the next ten [years]we will take it all the way, and that these kids will no longer be prosecuted criminally but be treated as they should have always been treated—as victims.”
Rose Mary Sullivan, C.N.D., recounted the STOP coalition’s role in supporting the Safe Harbor Act and the New York Anti-Trafficking Law, which passed in Albany in 2007. The law, which Sister Sullivan said can “serve in many ways as a model for other states,” created stiffer penalties for sex traffickers and increased penalties for patronizing prostitutes, among other things. She said it is one of the strongest anti-trafficking laws in the country.
The event was co-sponsored by Fordham’s Office of Alumni Relations, Office of Mission and Ministry, NY-CRC-STOP and LifeWay Network.