Not long ago, I read a startling statistic. The United States now ranks in the top 5 countries in the world for child sex trafficking. This alarming stat illuminates the fact that we as a country are absolutely failing our most vulnerable citizens. Plain and simple. Domestic human sex trafficking is an epidemic in America that many of us turn a blind eye to because we see it as something that happens to women and children from other countries, something far removed from our day to day lives. But the facts don’t lie and it’s high time we collectively pay attention. Last week, the FBI announced the results of Operation Cross Country VIII, an annual enforcement push to recover minor victims of domestic sex trafficking and bring their pimps to justice. The national effort was carried out in 106 cities across the country including right here in Los Angeles. Nationwide, 281 pimps were identified and 168 child victims were rescued, according to the FBI report. Here in the greater Los Angeles area, our local taskforce identified 12 pimps during the operation and rescued 10 children from their grasp.
Collaborative inter-agency efforts like Operation Cross Country are vital as we all work together to combat the scourge of domestic sex trafficking and I salute their efforts. However we know that this is a problem that is still grossly under reported. Not only because there is an extreme lack of comprehensive statistics surrounding the issue, but we can see with our own eyes that there are far more than 10 child victims in need of rescue here in our region. I see these children every time I look out the window at our Compton facility. Many of you have seen them as you drive down the streets of this city going about your everyday lives. We cannot continue to believe this is someone else’s ‘problem’ to deal with. There is an immediate need for laser-focused research on domestic human sex trafficking, especially as it relates to California and Los Angeles. It is vital that not only law enforcement agencies, but lawmakers, corporate leaders, and those of us in the nonprofit community fully understand the scope of the problem in order for us to provide adequate services and resources to address it.
In April, the YWCA Greater Los Angeles convened our first domestic sex trafficking symposium to help shine the light on this issue that is far too prevalent in our own backyard. The symposium was a launching pad for our new advocacy initiative and helped to reignite the conversation surrounding the multi-system response to sex trafficking here in the state of California and focused on defining concrete solutions. One of the calls to action that rose out of the conversations at the symposium from not only our California Attorney General, but also from District Attorney’s offices statewide, was to ramp up prosecution of the predators and recognize those involved in the sex trade as victims instead of criminals. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office began this work earlier this year by partnering with us and other community-based nonprofit organizations to administer its First Step Diversion program which is helping to redirect these juvenile victims.
The success of Operation Cross Country is an important step towards our collective goal of intervening against and combating domestic human sex trafficking. But we must never forget that there are so many more victims out there that are awaiting rescue. One of the startling facts that came out of the FBI’s announcement was that many of the rescued children were never reported missing in the first place. How is it possible that no one was looking for them? These are our babies. In his remarks announcing the annual enforcement operation, FBI Director James Comey pointed out that “these are America’s children…not faraway kids in faraway lands.” He is absolutely right. These children belong to all of us. Everyone is accountable for what happens to our children; for ensuring that no child in America is held in bondage as a sex slave to a child predator. That includes legislators, corporate leaders, local community organizations and all who have turned a blind eye at the sight of a young girl walking the streets late at night. We as a society can’t let them fall through the cracks and have their voices silenced due to anonymity. We all need to work together to support passage of laws that require foster care agencies to report children missing at the very least. In turn, we at the YWCA Greater Los Angeles will do our part as tireless advocates, continuing our ongoing efforts to raise community awareness and give a voice to these voiceless, vulnerable babies.
–Faye Washington is the President & CEO of the YWCA Greater Los Angeles