The Hidden World of Child Sex Trafficking in DC

 

“On the ground, what it looks like for someone to be trafficked is it often starts with an older man or woman befriending a younger girl or boy and going through an elaborate grooming process. They aren’t necessarily engaging in sex, but they’re buying them things and it progresses over time,” says Sarah Flohre, Supervising Attorney at Children’s Law Center.

Child sex trafficking happens every day in DC and the surrounding metro area, often flying under the radar, seemingly invisible as young girls and boys are pulled more deeply into the life through abuse, manipulation and fear.

The children most at risk for sex trafficking are already in vulnerable situations: Living in poverty, in foster care or struggling in school due to an unaddressed disability.

“A lot of the risk factors are ubiquitous and most teenagers at some point feel alone and isolated and not good enough. Having someone swan up to them and say ‘you’re so pretty, let me take you out to dinner, let me buy you this thing that you and your family can’t afford.’ It’s very compelling,” says Flohre.

Marlena* fit many of these risk factors. But like with most children involved with sex trafficking, she didn’t come to Children’s Law Center because someone recognized her as at risk. She came because she was often truant from school and had run away, each of which subject her to court involvement and possible detention in a juvenile facility.  

Flohre acted as an education attorney for Marlena and quickly realized this role wouldn’t give her the comprehensive attention Marlena needed for the complex, overlapping struggles she faced. While Flohre fought for Marlena’s educational needs, someone needed to fight for her overall best interests.

So, Flohre told the judge that Marlena’s mother would like a lawyer appointed to represent Marlena’s best interests and suggested Children’s Law Center Senior Supervising Attorney Allison Green.

The Search

When older youth are missing, law enforcement often frames it as the child’s choice, which means that they put fewer resources into locating them.  

“They’re exposed to drugs, they’re in some of the highest risk situations, but when they’re gone for long periods of time it’s really easy to back burner these kids,” says Green.

So when Marlena went missing, Children’s Law Center investigator Sophie Vick made it her mission to find her.

Vick has worked as an investigator at Children’s Law Center for four years. When it comes to sex trafficking, she knows the warning signs well: Fancy manicures, new hairdos, expensive clothes or an older boyfriend.

These behaviors are especially concerning when a young person is in the foster care system or lives in a family that is having trouble making ends meet.

Vick also knows a scary statistic: According to DC’s Attorney General’s office, the average age of entry into sex trafficking is 12 years old for girls.

“Unscientifically, the way I speak about it is when you’re trafficked for the first time at a young age, that changes the way you see yourself and the value you see in yourself. It’s going to be a struggle for a very long time, because that’s how you survived and how you were made to feel confident and valuable, useful and powerful,” says Vick.

So when a teen victim of sex trafficking goes missing and law enforcement does not act with urgency, Vick takes it upon herself to find them. Such was the case with Marlena.

Child sex trafficking often happens openly on the internet.

Vick monitored Marlena’s internet activities for some time – watched what she posted, who she became friends with and what those new friends – often older men – commented on her pictures. She kept track of key words, patterns and connections.

Eventually, Green and Vick decided to take their search for Marlena to another level by accessing a website notorious for sex trafficking. But sifting through thousands of pages of information is overwhelming and emotionally taxing.

 “I was just paging through tons of photos. Of women and girls. So, you know, ‘is this one her? Nope. OK,’ [and I’d go on to the next],” says Vick.

Sometimes, Vick would get close, only to find an advertisement was old or a phone number had been disconnected. Traffickers often use temporary phones, called burners, and throw them away after a short period of time to avoid being tracked.

And then one day Vick found a photo that gave her pause. She thought it could be Marlena, but something was off. She initially let it go, but kept coming back to it.

And then she made a discovery.

 “I had all the pictures up and I was so sure it was her. And then it clicked. The photo is in a mirror. This is her. This is her.”

Green turned the information over to the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) who, in turn, alerted the FBI, and Marlena was rescued.

But for sex trafficking victims the story doesn’t end with being rescued.

Recovery

Victims of sex trafficking need immediate and intensive therapy and continuous involvement of support agencies to help prevent them from becoming victims again. This includes support in school, independent living skills and a path to financial stability.

While there is no shortage of people committed to helping children who have been trafficked, Green says, there is a shortage of high-quality services tailored to the needs of victims. And that shortage leads to impatience with teens who suffer setbacks or miss appointments.

It’s key for service providers, judges and schools to manage their expectations and remember that abuse is cyclical. While there are set backs, Green says, it’s important to focus on the progress that does get made – and never give up.

Since trauma doesn’t pause for the school day, victims also need appropriate education supports including individualized education plans, access to a therapist and the space to catch up on school work without pressure. For a child who has been exploited, school can be an opportunity to build confidence and a renewed sense of self.

“Maybe when we’re talking about life or death we shouldn’t be talking about geometry. But I always am. So the high school credits, what’s the plan for that? I think that’s one of the huge strengths of the Children’s Law Center approach,” says Flohre.

 “I can be the person who says, ‘yes, safety, but let’s talk about geometry.’ [Not losing a focus on education] really important to this kid… and I think that’s one of the advantages of the multidisciplinary approach is that you can be real stubborn. I really spend a lot of time fighting about geometry.”

Today, Marlena is a high school graduate working to continue her education.

Prevention

While Children’s Law Center fights to protect victims of sex trafficking, we know the battle starts with prevention.

In a recent statement supporting Mayor Muriel Bowser’s ‘Six Steps to Protecting Our Youth Update Report,” Children’s Law Center Executive Director Judith Sandalow pointed to evidence-based and trauma-informed approaches to protecting at-risk kids.

 “Improvements to the District’s mental health, child abuse and substance abuse programs, better special education services, a reduction in homelessness and eliminating extreme poverty are all reforms which would lead to fewer children running away or going missing.”

Those same improvements will help protect vulnerable children from become victims of sex traffickers.

An additional layer of prevention comes in the approach to children’s online activity – including at schools, says Flohre. For children feeling isolated, lonely, or looking for an opportunity to feel better about themselves, the internet can be a dangerous medium.

But meeting children where they are and using the internet as a tool to keep them safe has revolutionized the way Children’s Law Center fights child sex trafficking.

“Sophie educated herself and the rest of us on how to use the internet to help us, and the internet is usually used to help the traffickers. She’s really converted that as a tool that we can use to find kids. But Sophie has also taught us all how to look and see if a kid is about to go missing,” says Flohre.

Looking Ahead

The fight against child sex trafficking extends to our policy work. On Thursday, Children’s Law Center Policy Attorney Aubrey Edwards-Luce will testify before the DC Council on the Child Abuse and Sex Trafficking Act of 2017. Once amended, parents who think their child may be a victim of sex trafficking can seek services from DC’s child welfare agency without exposing the family to the collateral consequences of court involvement.

And, as child sex trafficking comes into focus in the public sphere, Children’s Law Center is committed to continuing the fight through tenacious investigative work, innovative legal representation and bold systemic advocacy.  

*We work hard to protect the confidentiality of our clients. That's why Marlena's name and image have been changed. All other details are true.