All In: Thoughts on my personal fight against human trafficking

For me, human trafficking, and in particular commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) represents among the greatest human rights challenges of our time.  Here, I will share mainly my observations and thoughts as they pertain to the exploitation of minors in the United States, what we in law enforcment would call Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking.

As this great storm gathers in the distance, we stand witness to a crisis that threatens the very essence of childhood.  CSE is, quite clearly, the commodification of our children for the purposes of sexual commerce.  It exists because someone makes money.  It threatens not only their innocence, but our cultural innocence as well.  Make no mistake, we stand witness to among the greatest human rights crises of our time, and we lack a cohesive, societal response.

CSE is particularly insidious by targeting the most vulnerable and destitute among our children.   It happens all around us and is closer than most people think.  Look to the street corners, the alleys, or the internet for the marketplace where these young victims are bought and sold.  The victims are pulled from the vast ranks of runaways on our streets, and the patrons come from the very neighborhoods where we live.  With nearly 1800 runaways per year in Minneapolis, and another 1000 in St.Paul the streets in the Mpls/St. Paul metro are literally filled with kids that have no way to adequately provide for themselves.  With nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep and no one to rely upon, their body becomes their only currency.  And with no shortage of predators waiting to exploit this harsh reality, these children become easy targets.  And let me be clear that they kids can come from any street, in any community, in any city across this country.

We know from our experience as law enforcement, advocates, and citizens that CSE affects everyone.  No one is untouched as the direct and collateral damage from this crisis disperses through families, through churches, through communities.  Victims who are exploited face a potential lifetime of negative impacts from their experience.  The luckiest among them will be rescued or escape their exploitation only to find lasting struggles for acceptance and wholeness in their recovery from such horrifying trauma.  Others lost in the process are never rescued and go into adulthood with crippling drug and alcohol dependencies, and physical, emotional and mental injuries that prevent them from ever finding respite from their suffering.

To put it in perspective, think about what we know about the significance a single event of sexual assault in the life of a woman.  Imagine the life changing trauma of that one event, and the role it plays in her self image, relationships and future.  Now multiply that by 10, by 50, by 200 and you have an idea about the experience of a child exploited in sex trafficking.

And the ranks of men who surf the internet, or drive the streets of St. Paul and Minneapolis looking for a human outlet for their debased sexual desires leave destruction in their path.  From the victims whom they pay and possess, to their own families left at home, to their own psyche and soul, the damage is substantial, lasting and tragic.

Children embedded in a life of sexual exploitation learn that the world is a hostile place.  Over 90 percent of the time it begins with abuse or sexual assault in childhood.  Let the insidious nature of that sink in for a minute:  Those obligated to protect and defend them are instead the harbingers of unimaginable betrayal.  As a result, too often, the victims find a brief solace in the arms of a trafficker who promises love, caring, even freedom from their pain. All they have to do is charge money for what has been taken from them for free.   It’s easy to see how a vulnerable child, indigent and alone would succumb to such treacherous promises.

One little girl named Amanda found that by trading one abuse for another, she recaptured some small sense of freedom from her pain.  In fact, the story of my own fight against commercial sexual exploitation begins with her.

I first met Amanda on a summer night in 2000.  A street crimes officer in North Minneapolis, I had conducted an investigation into gang related crack activity on a particular block and we ended up serving a search warrant at a residence where crack was being sold.  Now drug warrants are loud, invasive and violent.  Whether you are on the side of the target of the warrant, or on that of the police serving the warrant, anxiety runs very high and the experience leaves everyone, even the officers as recipients of the trauma.

After the scene was secure, I found Amanda in a makeshift bedroom in the basement.  She wore only a soiled white tee shirt. Her face, arms and legs were dirty and scraped skin hinted to her abuse.  She was emaciated, having had nothing to eat, and little to drink in days.  Four different drugs remained in her bloodstream, and a broken crack pipe lay next to the mattress.  And Amanda was for sale.

At that time, Amanda wasn’t our priority.  She wasn’t the reason we were there.  In fact, we took 3 guns, a substantial amount of crack cocaine and were able to ultimately build effective cases against a number of gang members plaguing that neighborhood.  In the boasting that followed, Amanda wasn’t even an afterthought.  She was collateral damage to the inner city drug problem, and her status as victim was even in question as she had come there by her  own volition.

I would later learn that she had been trafficked in that basement for 4 days, given a hit or two of crack when she would “turn a trick”, and then more crack from time to time to keep her docile and cooperative.  Amanda never saw any of the money, but for $30, sometimes less, men there to buy crack could purchase her.  She was a supplementary source of income for this particular drug gang:  A perpetual commodity with very low overhead that provided a much desired service which cost them nothing.  From their point of view it was a no-brainer:  She was free and cost them nothing but made them $1000 to $2000 per day.

Amanda was 16 and from a Northern Minnesota town of less than 2000 people.  She was detoxed for two days, then returned home. Within days she had run again.  I would rescue Amanda 5 more times over the next two years.  Each time I saw her, the change to her was tragic and unsettling.  She seemed to grow older, harder, emptier.  One time I asked her why she keep running away, only to find her way to another crack house and more abuse, meaning I had to rescue her again.  She, in turn, asked me why I kept rescuing her and sending her home?  It seemed obvious and I was a bit smug with her in hindsight:  I can’t stand to see you violated and abused.  This is the only time I ever remember her making eye contact with me.  “Then stop sending me home” she said.

Tears still well up in my eyes and heart when I think about that today.  How horribly I had failed this child.  She was exactly why I had entered law enforcement in the first place.  She was the one that I had sworn to protect and serve, and had done exactly the opposite.

This experience, now 13 years in the past taught me some important lessons about myself, my place in this battle, and exposed the operational indifference that exists in most institutions designed to protect victims.  Among those lessons that shape my perspective are:

1.  True victims are hard to see

In fact they are often invisible.  This is absolutely true in the case of juvenile victims of sex trafficking.  They don’t often self-report, and most police and official contact is usually due to symptoms of the problem such as petty theft, fraud, truancy, absenting and drug use.  They are misidentified and we miss the important cues that should drive us to look harder and dig deeper.  For this reason, identification and rescue is and always will be the most important thing that we do in our official capacity.

2.   Even if they had some complicity in their current situation, they are still victims and need to be recognized and treated as such

Most of us will never have the experiential basis to understand the reality of these kids’ lives.  I can’t imagine and won’t pretend to understand what it means to be a sex trafficking victim.  I can’t imagine the need to escape an abuse home or relationship. Even if the outcome is very destructive, these kids are brave, resourceful and survival oriented.  They survive situations I could never imagine and would not handle as well.

3.  In order to effectively love and serve these victims, I first had to deal with the biases and judgments that affect my own attitudes

This is another one where I got a good slap in the face from the Gospel.  It’s clear that we are directed not to judge others, yet my own biases  and attitudes toward others stood in direct contravention of that command.  You’ve probably heard the monologue yourself, but mine included things like, “those are bad kids that shouldn’t have run away.”  “They need to stop smoking crack and do some of the work to get better for themselves.”  “No one is forcing them into it.”  Such foolish arrogance is embarrassing to admit, but if I truly wanted to be a tool for God to use to save these victims, and change their lives, I needed to first  deal with the dark side of my own ideologies. Now I share that transforming realization with everyone who will listen.

4.  This fight is too big for one person, one organization or one profession

Fortunately, and unfortunately this is a problem that has attracted a lot of attention, and funding.  Fortunately because sex trafficking is one hundred percent preventable and has a great many weak spots for us to attack.  As an investigator/detective I call them pressure points and they refer to the weak places in a criminal conspiracy where we can target to gain intelligence, exploit the weaknesses of those involved to bring it down.  Advocates similarly will recognize soft places to attack the problem, as will churches and treatment professionals.  One profession can’t do it alone and we truly need each other as the needs of the victims are so multi-dimensional and vast.  The unfortunate side of the attention afforded sex trafficking is that it draws a lot of different people and organizations into the fight, all well-intentioned, but often uninformed about what others are doing, to include their successes and failures.  Many lack preparation, training and focus.  In the end, we have plenty of well-meaning institutions and people fighting for recognition, funding and prominence when what we should have is true, Christian collaboration and inter-dependency.

Finally, several certainties accompany me as I walk into this battle each day:

  1. God hates human trafficking
  2. God alone gives me what I need to fight this battle, and do what I must
  3. This battle has many fronts and all of God’s followers are needed
  4. The most important tool I can have in this fight is love

I’l expand on these in the near future.  For now, I need a break.

God Bless You All

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