I recently heard a hopeful story about a distressing subject–child sex trafficking. A teenage girl, a recent immigrant, had suddenly disappeared from the community center she used to visit, and a social worker set out to find out what had happened to her. The social worker found out the girl had been kidnapped and forced into sex trafficking, and was being raped as many as 25 times a day. The community center worked with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) to have the traffickers (who included the girl's mother) arrested and prosecuted and the girl placed in foster care.
In this case, law enforcement achieved its goals, and the victim was given a safe place to live and a chance to recover from her ordeal. As a foster care recipient under the jurisdiction of the court, she received a Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) visa, which made her a legal resident of this country. She is also receiving the medical and psychological help she needs to survive.
Yet most victims in her situation would not have fared as well. Most foster care programs do not take teenagers or immigrants, especially without legal status, even though entry into foster care may qualify them for SIJS visas. Few victims are rescued through the swift collaboration of a local service provider and several federal law enforcement agencies. And few child sex trafficking victims ever get the help they need to recover from these crimes.
We can take pride in our nation's powerful response to trafficking. The Trafficking Victims Prevention Act of 2000, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, and Representative Chris Smith's and Carolyn Maloney's recently introduced bill, Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act of 2010 (which provides $45 million to rescue and care for minor victims, prosecute perpetrators, and promote educational prevention programs; it would also and require timely and accurate reporting of missing children) show how seriously our legislators take this crime.
But to help victims, we need to do so much more. We need regular, robust collaboration among the U.S. Department of Justice, Homeland Security/ICE, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which provides direction to local foster care agencies. We need federal law enforcement to work with local agencies who know the victims and their communities, and we need HHS to take the lead in encouraging foster care agencies to accept more immigrant children and older teens. In short, we need a comprehensive, compassionate response to victims of child sex trafficking–justice requires no less.
Mai Fernandez is the Executive Director of the National Center for Victims of Crime.