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News & Events






July 19, 2010


When they hear the term “child trafficking,” most Americans think that it only happens somewhere else, in Southeast Asia or Central America.  They also assume that it only refers to non-US nationals brought into this country from another country.  Even when they acknowledge that it happens in the United States, they assume that it only happens in big cities, like New York or Los Angeles.

What we have learned is that it is happening on Main Street USA, and that most of the victims are American kids who initially leave home voluntarily.  One police commander said to me, “the only way not to find this problem in any community is simply not to look for it.”   The good news is that America has begun to look.  The bad news is that we have barely scratched the surface.

The Chairs of the two Caucuses convening today’s briefing asked me to briefly address three issues with you today:  The numbers; the importance of rapid reporting and NCIC entry; and the importance of working together. 

The Numbers:  The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) estimates that at least 100,000 American children are the victims of commercial sexual trafficking and prostitution each year.  How did we arrive at that number?  The offenders don’t file tax returns and few of these cases actually make it into the justice system.

The primary basis for our estimate is the research of Dr. Richard Estes and Dr. Neil Alan Weiner at the University of Pennsylvania, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice through its National Institute of Justice.  Dr. Estes and Dr. Weiner estimated that 293,000 US children are “at risk” of commercial child exploitation each year.  However, they provided much greater detail and analysis.

Dr. Estes estimated that the number of 10 -- 17 year olds involved in commercial sexual exploitation in the US each year likely exceeds 250,000, with 60% of these victims being runaway, thrownaway or homeless youth.  Commercial sexual exploitation is broader in scope than just child prostitution, but there is little doubt that the commercial sexual exploitation of runaway, thrownaway and homeless youth is overwhelmingly prostitution.  60% of 250,000 is 150,000.  
The researchers also estimated that one third of street-level prostitutes in the U.S. are less than 18 while half of off-street prostitutes are less than 18.  With the explosion in the sale of kids for sex online, it is clear that more kids are at risk.     
Some runaway groups have estimated that as many as 1/3 of teen runaways/thrownaways will become involved in prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home.  The Justice Department’s National Incidence Study of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children (NISMART II) estimated that there are nearly 1.7 million runaway/thrownaway episodes each year, of which just 357,600 are reported to police.   Of that total, 1.6 million are 12 – 17 years old, and 1.3 million are gone from 24 hours to 6 months.  So, eliminating those gone for less than 24 hours and taking half of the balance (the boy/girl ratio of runaways is 50/50), we arrive at 650,000 girls.  Taking 1/3 of that number would lead us to infer that roughly 200,000 plus runaway/thrownaway girls are lured into prostitution each year. 

Thus, while 100,000 is clearly a very conservative number, NCMEC continues to use that estimate because we believe it is empirically sound and completely defensible.  In a larger sense, we believe it reasonable to estimate a range of 100,000 – 300,000 per year with comfort and confidence.

Rapid Reporting and NCIC Entry:  A recent New York Times series by investigative reporter Ian Urbina found that many of these trafficked kids are not reported missing and that of those who are, some are not being entered into NCIC as required by law, or it is being done too slowly.  Nearly thirty years ago, the late Congressman and Senator Paul Simon of Illinois coined the phrase “runaway presumption.”  What he meant was that many missing child cases were not being investigated or responded to in a prompt, serious manner because police presumed that the child was a runaway.  In fact, virtually every police department had a mandatory waiting period of 24, 48 or 72 hours.  If your child disappeared, the police would often say, “oh, she probably just ran away.  If she doesn’t show up in a day or two, call us back and we will take a report.” 

Today, we know that these waiting periods and the lack of prompt response put many children at greater risk.  In fact, in abduction-homicide cases, we now know that in ¾ of the cases, the child is dead within the first three hours.  So, time is the enemy.  We must move quickly.

Thanks to the leadership of Congressman Simon and former Senator Paula Hawkins, in 1982 Congress passed the Missing Children’s Act, making it possible to enter missing child information into NCIC.  In 1990 Congress passed the National Child Search Assistance Act, mandating an immediate report and immediate entry in every missing child case, and eliminating the old waiting periods by law.

Yet, Ian Urbina’s research made it clear that implementation of these laws is not uniform and consistent.  Too many police departments still treat runaways less seriously than other missing children.  Our clear message is that these kids are at risk and that it is important to move quickly and decisively, before they are victimized. 

The Importance of Working Together:  This is an enormous problem, yet it is under-recognized and under-reported, a problem of hidden victims.  It is also one that requires multi-disciplinary, multi-jurisdictional, multi-agency partnerships if we are going to make progress.  It was in that spirit that we joined with the FBI and the Justice Department’s Child Exploitation & Obscenity Section (CEOS) in 2003 in creating the Innocence Lost National Initiative.
This was an unprecedented effort, and an extraordinary example of the impact that the federal, state and local governments, working with non-governmental organizations can have on this problem.  The vast majority of these offenses are state offenses.  Yet, historically when state or local law enforcement applied pressure, the pimps simply moved the kids to another city.  And typically, when attention was brought to this problem, police simply arrested the kids.

Innocence Lost sought to change all of that.  Today, there are 38 Innocence Lost Task Forces across the country, and more than 600 pimps have been successfully prosecuted.  More than 1,000 kids have been rescued.  And for the first time the pimps are getting serious sentences from the courts.  Four have been sentenced to life in prison, and many others are getting 20 years and up.

We began this effort with three underlying beliefs: 

(1) That much of this is organized crime.  These kids are commodities for sale or trade.  There is a network.  They are trafficked, moved from city to city for the financial gain of those who use, abuse and control them.  Whenever I have made this point, I have always added, “not Mafia or La Casa Nostra, but organized crime nonetheless.”  Then in April, a federal Grand Jury in New York indicted members of the Gambino Crime Family for selling kids for sex via the Internet.”  Organized criminals are involved in this illicit enterprise because it is low risk and enormously profitable.  Our goal is to increase the risk and eliminate the profitability.  

(2) That these kids are victims.  This is 21st Century slavery.  They lack the ability to walk away.  The pimps who use and discard them are the criminals, as are those who patronize them.   These kids need to be rescued, not arrested. We are encouraged by the passage of the recent Safe Harbor laws in New York and Connecticut, mandating that these children be treated as victims.  We are hopeful that other states will enact similar legislation soon, codifying this principle in law. 

(3) That technology has changed the playing field.  Offenders don’t just parade these kids on city streets any more.  Today, a customer can shop online for a child from the privacy of his home or hotel room.  Online classified advertising services, like Craigslist, Backpage and dozens of others have made it possible for pimps and operators to offer these kids to prospective customers with little or no risk. 

In 2008 NCMEC and 40 state Attorneys General, headed by Connecticut AG Richard Blumenthal, entered into an agreement with Craigslist, resulting in a new requirement of credit card identification to submit ads, the closure of Craigslist’s “Erotic Services” area, the screening of ads in their “Adult” area, and an agreement by Craigslist to report suspected child exploitation to NCMEC.  That is one step but much more needs to be done by Craigslist and every company in this market.

In closing, I am encouraged to report that there is real movement and real progress.  State legislatures are acting.  Law enforcement is working together and doing more.  The public is awakening to this crisis in our midst.  But we need to do more, and it is important that Congress provide leadership.

We are particularly concerned about the lack of adequate resources to help the victims.  For so many of the 1,000 children rescued by Innocence Lost, there have not been places to put them to get help.  That problem has to be remedied.

So, I am pleased to be here today to express my thanks to Congresswoman Maloney, Congressman Smith, Congressman Poe and Congressman Costa, and to Senator Ron Wyden who is spearheading a similar effort in the Senate, for this timely, bipartisan effort to attack the exploding phenomenon of domestic minor sex trafficking.



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