Learning Hard Truths About Sex Trafficking

0

Think that child sex trafficking is a foreign issue? Guess again —  hundreds of cases are reported yearly in Philadelphia.

There were 3,598 sex trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center in the United States in 2014. So far this year, 973 cases have been filed to the center.
 
But those numbers don’t tell the whole, chilling story — the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that 100,000 U.S. children are exploited through prostitution every year.
 
It’s happening locally, too, as Pennsylvania is considered by many advocacy groups to be both a “pass-through” and destination state for sex trafficking, and a 2007 Department of Justice report listed Philadelphia as one of the top 20 trafficking jurisdictions in the United States.
 
So when Penni Blaskey attended a program at the 2014 International Lion of Judah Conference in New York on sex trafficking in the United States, these disturbing figures prompted her to convene a local panel on the subject, which she chaired with Jill Zipin and Julie Savitch, at the Jewish Community Services Building in Center City on April 22.
 
“We decided to bring this back to the Jewish community in order to help educate and raise awareness of what’s going on and find ways to eradicate the problem,” Blaskey, who is involved with Women of Vision, the permanent Jewish Women’s Foundation of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said after the event.
 
The program, sponsored by Jewish Federation’s Women of Vision, Women’s Philanthropy and Jewish Community Relations Council, with the local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women and other groups, drew a crowd of about 180 people, predominantly women.
 
During the event’s opening remarks, Rachel Kobrin, rabbi of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, cited the Jewish people’s experience with slavery in Egypt as a biblical source underscoring the urgency for Jews to address human sex trafficking, which was defined in a packet handed out at the event as any instance of a minor being “induced to perform commercial sex in any way.”
 
The panel consisted of Rachel Yudt, chair of the Montgomery County Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition, Risa Vetri Ferman, Montgomery County’s district attorney, State Sen. Daylin Leach and Jen Spry, a survivor of child sex trafficking, who now works as a nurse and who advocates on the issue.
 
Spry captivated the audience as she described, sometimes graphically, her experience of being coerced at the age of 8, along with her 8-year-old cousin and 6-year-old sister, into performing sexual acts by a man living in a house across the street from where she and her sister lived in Norristown with their single mother.
 
He made money off having them do similar things with other adults he brought into his house.
 
She explained that the man had initially lured the children into his grasp by offering them toys. Though they suspected something was off about him, they accepted the toys and kept it secret.
 
“We had enough sense to know we had done something wrong, and this is where the shame and guilt starts to come in,” Spry said, adding that the fear she felt from the situation is what prevented her from coming forward while it was happening.
 
Later, when the abuse became more physical, “I had marks, scratches, hickies, even bite marks on my body that I was hiding from my mom.”
 
It was only when Spry’s mother passed away a few years ago, she said, that she decided to come out with her story and raise her voice against sex trafficking.
 
Leach discussed a “safe harbor” bill he plans to introduce in the state Senate in Harrisburg.
 
The bill, among other things, would grant full immunity to anyone 18 and under caught prostituting, refer victims of sex trafficking to relevant social services agencies and increase penalties of sex trafficking offenders.
 
He argued that he would rather have those few minors who are aware and responsible for their decision to sell their bodies to slip through the cracks, rather than re-victimize the majority of underage prostitutes who are forced into the trade.
 
Everyone on the panel asserted that many prostitutes, both male and female, are dragged into the business from an early age.
 
The national advocacy group, Polaris Project, states on its website (polarisproject.org) that the average entry age of children into sex trafficking — an industry that generates $9.5 billion yearly in the United States, according to Covering House, a similar organization — is between 12 and 15 years old, and that runaway youths are at the highest risk for exploitation.
 
At the end of the panel discussion, attendees of the event were asked to sign a letter to be sent to Pennsylvania Sens. Pat Toomey and Bob Casey, urging them to pass the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act, federal legislation that would protect homeless youth from trafficking and provide them with shelter and services, and the Strengthening Child Welfare Response to Human Trafficking Act, which is intended to help state child welfare agencies identify child victims of trafficking. Both acts are going through various stages in Congress.
 
The overall message that the panelists left with those in attendance was that trafficking is a real issue in the United States, even here in Philadelphia, and that awareness is an important step toward prevention.
 
“If we all advocate for more safe houses and specialized follow-up care for victims right here in our own back yard — because don’t tell me it’s not happening here; it’s happening in our neighborhoods, it’s happening in our schools, it’s happening to our children, we are all at risk — we can give victims hope,” Yudt said. “We must begin finding ways that each and every person can use their own unique skills, gifts and passions to affect change.”

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here