Skip to main content

Sold into sex slavery: Lawmakers work to end underground sex trafficking

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
updated 2:20 PM EDT, Wed May 21, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lawmakers in the House will vote on bills aimed at ending underground sex trade
  • According to the FBI, an estimated 293,000 American youth are at risk
  • Victims, families, lawmakers say tougher laws targeting the Internet and sex traffickers are needed
  • For victims, recovery is a long road and requires a lot of support

Washington (CNN) -- The 17-year-old girl was lured in by a pimp and forced to have sex for money.

She worked for three nightmarish weeks, until the pimp told her that he'd sold her to another pimp in Dallas.

He said he would hurt her, hurt her family if she didn't go.

"This is the point when you can give up on me," the girl told her mother, and disappeared into the night.

2013: Feds bust Georgia sex-slave ring
Eyeing sex trafficking at the Super Bowl
British woman trafficked by boyfriend
Video shows undercover sex ring bust

"I'm not giving up. I'm not quitting. I'm not going to lose you," vowed her mom, who asked not to be identified for her own safety.

And she didn't.

Not when she got a tip that her daughter was being advertised online. The mother says her daughter's former classmates, who'd been looking for a stripper for a 21st birthday party, found the ad on a website and posted it on their social media pages.

Not on the nights when she received text messages that swore the girl was fine, but that just didn't seem to come from her daughter.

The girl's mother pressed police, family, friends and anyone who would listen to her pleas for help. Finally, the man who'd helped supply her daughter with heroin, who sold her daughter to men for sex, and who had planned to send her to Dallas, was arrested.

The girl was returned to her family.

The emotional scars would take years to begin to heal, for both mother and daughter.

"I'm so angry about what these people did to my kid," the mom said, her voice breaking.

According to the FBI, an estimated 293,000 American youth are at risk of being trafficked in the nation's underground sex trade.

Lawmakers in the House passed a broad package of bills on Tuesday aimed at trying to shut down the nation's multi-million dollar sex trafficking industry.

While the measures, which have bipartisan support, include a resolution condemning the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram -- an armed terrorist group that has threatened to sell the girls into forced marriages -- the legislation also addresses exploitation much closer to home.

The measures include a bill sponsored by Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Missouri, which would make it a federal crime for advertisers to knowingly allow those in the sex trade to sell children and adult trafficking victims on their pages and websites. They also include a bill that would urge states to put laws in place that treat minors who have been sold for sex as victims when they are arrested, rather than as criminals.

"As a parent, I can sympathize and only imagine how horrible it is as a parent to have a child that has been subjected to this horrific crime," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, who worked to help bring attention to the measures, said at a news conference on Tuesday.

The package of bills includes:

-- H.R. 573: Condemns the April 14th kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by the terrorist group, Boko Haram.

-- H.R. 4058: Requires states to identify and address sex trafficking of minors in foster care.

-- H.R. 4573: Directs the State Department to give "advance notice of intended travel" of those convicted of sex offenses against children and asks other nations to reciprocate.

-- H.R. 3530: Imposes additional financial penalties on sex traffickers and helps increase the amount of restitution victims could receive.

-- H.R. 3610: Encourages states to put in place laws that treat minors who have been sex trafficked as victims rather than criminals.

-- H.R. 4225: Makes it a federal crime to knowingly advertise for the commercial sexual exploitation of minors and trafficking victims.

The Department of Justice will also honor seven people who helped rescue abused or missing children as part of its annual National Missing Children's Day commemoration on Wednesday. One of the speakers, Holly Smith, was sex trafficked when she was 14, and has written a book, "Walking Prey," about her experiences.

The CNN Freedom Project

Critical mass

"This is beginning to reach critical mass in the U.S. and people are paying attention to it," Cindy McCain, a longtime advocate for the victims of human trafficking and the wife of Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, told CNN in an interview. "It is part of the dialogue on social media and in Congress as well."

Cindy McCain, who is a co-chair of the Arizona governor's Task Force on Human Trafficking, testified before Congress in February that during the Super Bowl, advertisements on websites for sex in the greater New York area included women and children forced to perform those acts by sex traffickers.

The statistics were based on research conducted by Arizona State University and Praescient Analytics, for the McCain Institute for International Leadership, a Washington-based think tank.

She also traveled with Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, and Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, in April to meet with Mexican government officials to discuss ways to end sex trafficking across the nations' shared border.

The two senators worked together on a measure aimed at ensuring minors who are sexually trafficked are treated as victims and helps them sue the perpetrators for damages.

The bill also offers employment assistance for victims through the Jobs Corps program, encourages cooperation on all levels of government in tracking traffickers, provides more resources to the National Human Trafficking Hotline and would require sex traffickers to report to authorities every three months, have their photos taken and appear on the National Sex Offender Registry for life.

"We can't lead worldwide unless we clean up our own house first," Cindy McCain told CNN.

Teen actors take on human trafficking
Dolph Lundgren taking on 'Skin Trade'
Mira Sorvino fights human trafficking

Cleaning house is a complicated effort. Sex trafficking is an insidious and lucrative business -- one that relies on the exploitation of vulnerable children and adults, porous borders and the anonymity of the Internet to feed a seemingly insatiable demand, according to lawmakers, members of law enforcement and victims' rights advocates.

Human trafficking ranks as the third-largest international crime industry behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking, according to 2000 figures (some of the most recent comprehensive data available) from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Profits from human trafficking are estimated at $32 billion, $15.5 billion of which comes from industrialized nations, according to a 2005 report from the International Labour Organization.

"These guys are making millions and millions of dollars on the backs of women and children," Cindy McCain told CNN.

"I'd stopped crying"

The quota was $1,000 a night.

That's how much Katie Rhoades, then 19, was forced to make having sex with men for money. Every night. For three years.

"If you got good at manipulation, you didn't have to turn as many tricks," said Rhoades, adding that beatings and emotional abuse befell the women who did not obey the sex trafficker's commands or bring in the $1,000. "If you don't think there is an out, you learn to survive within it."

In 2002, she was a homeless, drug-addicted stripper barely out of high school when the pimp and his "bottom girl" -- the one responsible for luring girls and women, training them and enforcing the "rules" -- trapped her with promises of a better and more glamorous life as their recording studio production assistant. Instead, 72 hours after she moved from Portland to San Francisco with them, she was held captive and forced to strip and have sex with men for money.

The home where she and the other women were held had a six-foot high fence topped with barbed wire, cameras on every corner, two pit bulls in the yard, and an alarm system which only the pimp knew how to fully disarm. She spent the next three years bouncing between this home, hotels in Las Vegas where she was rented out and the pimp's home.

The night she was judged by her pimp as "out of pocket" was the night that changed everything.

Her crime: She'd dared to look another pimp in the eye.

"I found out that night that wasn't the thing to do. I was told I couldn't do that 'cause I could have been kidnapped and held for ransom," Rhoades said. "I didn't know, I was a child and had just worked 16 hours."

"So he put me outside of the gate in Oakland and these guys could approach me and get me to go with them. It's called a 'pimp circle,'" she said. "I couldn't look at them, I couldn't talk to them and I couldn't cry either because that would show weakness."

"That was the moment I had a conscious thought that if I didn't get out of here I'd never get out. I'd stopped crying."

Eventually, she was able to escape and get help from a former family physician to enroll in a drug rehabilitation program miles away in Minnesota. She got clean, earned both her undergraduate and graduate degrees in social work and now runs a victims' advocacy group, Healing Action. She also helps train hotel staff to recognize sexual trafficking.

"We need stronger laws penalizing folks who facilitate the sex trade," Rhoades said. "If a hotel manager consciously turns a blind eye to allow this to occur in his hotel then he needs to be penalized."

Victims of modern-day slavery

Spotting human trafficking on flights
Walsh: This is the tip of the iceberg
Trafficking survivor: Go after the johns

Trapping children

Rep. Wagner wants to add just one word to section 1591 of the U.S. criminal code: advertise.

That change would make it a federal crime for advertisers to knowingly allow those in the sex trade to sell children and adult trafficking victims in their publications, websites and other forms of media. She knows the effort is controversial, but she reasons that if it is illegal to advertise products that are banned by law, then "surely people shouldn't be able to advertise a child or exploited woman for sex."

There are myriad local, state and federal laws on the books designed to deter sex trafficking. And federal authorities have made tremendous progress in helping crack down on those types of crimes, advocates say.

But while advocates acknowledge they've seen a lot of success over the years from reauthorizations of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a federal law which offers protections to those who have been trafficked, they also worry that programs authorized to investigate trafficking have not received adequate resources.

"It's a balance, we have a certain amount of money and there is a lot of need," said Britanny Vanderhoof, policy counsel for Polaris Project, one of the world's leading organizations in the fight against human trafficking. "What we've been hearing about government spending and what the budget should look like does play a part in this discussion."

Those funding issues do make a difference at the grassroots level, said Dedee Lhamon, executive director of The Covering House, a St. Louis shelter for children who have been trafficked for sex.

"Two of our children were trafficked online," Lhamon says of her residents. "One was 13 and the other was 15. The 13-year-old, after nine months of being trafficked, her mother found me and The Covering House and I was able to provide her with some resources in her area."

But "there are few resources once they are rescued," Lhamon said. The 13-year-old was placed in a residential home for victims where she tried to commit suicide.

And while resources to help victims are limited, the Internet has expanded the reach of those who operate sex trafficking rings, Lhamon said.

Traffickers use a variety of tactics -- both online and in person -- to trap their victims, she said.

"You have your stereotypical cases of a trafficker who lures in a girl and holds her in a place and sells her online," Lhamon said. "One was a girl from a good family who was homeschooled. She thought she was being sent to a study abroad program, but when she got there she was sex trafficked. She was able to call her father and he went and got her."

Another girl was befriended by an elderly couple and was then held captive and sold for sex. Her father was able to rescue her as well, Lhamon said.

"There are girls who are going to school or church and being rented out by a parent or someone who needs to get their drug supply," she said. "Don't live in denial and think it couldn't happen to your child, (saying) 'We live in a suburb or small town.' Most of our cases are in small towns and suburbs."

A profitable enterprise

"Anger, hurt and regret"

The girl who was sold to the pimp in Dallas -- but rescued before being sent there -- is 19 now. She started school last week. She dyed her blond hair dark. She's starting to wear makeup again.

But she still can't bring herself to sleep in her own bed after her three-week ordeal. She sleeps instead on the couch and tells her mother, "I'm scared to be alone."

When her mother has to leave the house, the girl sends frantic texts asking where she is, and when she'll be back.

She can't bring herself to fully embrace male relatives and friends. She offers a sideways, one-armed hug instead.

She cries a lot, her mom says, and she won't tell anyone, not doctors, therapists or even her mother the full details of what happened to her when she was forced to prostitute.

Her mom lives in a world of "anger, hurt and regret," replaying over and over in her head the night her daughter left and begged her mom to give up on her.

"There's got to be somebody who can help her," the mother said.

Her daughter came back from her ordeal addicted to drugs, and, though she has been clean since February, her mom worries she'll have a relapse when the "bottom girl" who helped keep her captive goes on trial this fall.

"When your kids fall, you can put a Band-Aid and antibiotic on their hurts, but there's nothing I can do," the mom says, her voice breaking. "When something like this happens to your child you're supposed to protect them."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:43 AM EST, Mon December 10, 2012
oh8
This is the story of a young Bangladeshi boy who survived an appalling attack by a gang of men who tried to force him into begging.
updated 6:37 AM EST, Tue December 4, 2012
How a genuine human tragedy triggered chain of goodwill -- changing a young boy's life, as CNN's Sara Sidner reports.
It was a short e-mail -- a few simple lines. It came from a U.S. businessman, inspired to help a young boy who had been viciously attacked.
When a taxi driver admonished CNN's Sara Sidner for giving money to a beggar in India, she soon understood why he had.
Sara Morales has been to hell and back. She was forcibly recruited by the main guerrilla group in her country when she was just a young girl.
An estimated 300,000 girls and women have been forced into the sex trade in India's Andhra Pradesh. Of these, only 3,000 have been rescued so far.
An estimated 300,00 girls and women have been forced into the sex trade in India's Andhra Pradesh -- only 3,000 have been rescued so far.
Sheikh Mohammed Abu Billal, who operates a safe house for captives who manage to escape the traffickers, sits with CNN's Fred Pleitgen.
As part of the Freedom Project CNN this year returned to Egypt's Sinai Desert where people-smugglers abuse, rape and hold for ransom desperately poor refugees.
Bedouin Sheiks Mohammed Abu Billal (left) and Ibrahim al Munai have banded together to fight human traffickers who operate torture camps in the Sinai. Their efforts have lead to a significant decrease in people traffickers.
A band of Bedouin tribal chiefs near Egypt's border with Israel have started to fight back against the brutality of the area's people smugglers.
From Coca-Cola to Microsoft, some of the most recognizable brands in the world of business have joined forces in the fight against human trafficking and slavery.
ADVERTISEMENT