September 2010 was a month for disturbing Craigslist headlines. A summary of one Associated Press post:
Craigslist surrender[s] in legal fight over erotic ads postedon its website, shutting down its adult services section ...replacing it with a black bar that simply says 'censored.' ... State attorney generals [have] said there were not enough protections against blocking potentially illegal ads promoting prostitution. It's not clear if the closure is permanent, and it appears to only affect ads in the United States. --Christopher Leonard, AP Business Writer, 09/05/2010Websites like Craigslist, Myspace and MyRedBook have facilitated and spurred new growth in child/human trafficking and prostitution within the United States. The Internet has made it possible for pimps and traffickers to sell and solicit children from thousands of miles away. Savvy online criminals can easily pick up at-risk children and runaways through social networking sites.
But the problem still exists. In 2008, Craigslist placed $5.00 fees for formerly free postings of adult ads. The ‘erotic services’ category, typically where children are solicited as prostitutes, has since seen an 85- to 90-percent decrease in posting volume. Nonetheless, a month after the measures were adopted a missing underage New Jersey girl was spotted on Craigslist offering in-call services in Miami.
Sites like Craigslist have made “Y2K pimpin'” easy for alleged pimps like Marvin Epps, who used MyRedbook.com and Craigslist to broker his underage prostitutes. Epps explained that posting a few glamour shots of nude underage girls online is quite easy and instantly attracts customers. While these sites fill the demand side of underage prostitution, Web sites like Myspace.com, Urbanchat.com, and Blackplanet.com have supplied the necessary victims. Alan Townsend used Urbanchat.com to lure a 14-year-old Ohio girl to Florida with promises of a modeling job. Instead the girl found only a violent man ready to turn her into a prostitute. In spring 2009, then Sgt. Sterling Hospedales, 27, lured two teenage girls he met on the Internet to Washington from Wyoming. Hospedales purchased the necessary transportation for the girls and immediately began pimping them through Craigslist ads.
Individuals like Hospedales and Epps use the Internet to lure and then sell young girls, but some victims opt to sell themselves online. An unnamed 14-year-old Sacramento prostitute, who said she had started selling herself at age 11, chose to put herself on Craigslist because she “wanted to feel loved.” Sadly, the average age of entry into prostitution in the U.S. is between 11 to 14 years old, according to human trafficking statistics. Roughly 90 percent of runaways become involved in the American sex industry, and of the roughly half a million illegals trafficked into the country, of which 15,000 are children.
While the Internet has facilitated the ease of selling young girls and expanded the reach of pimps and traffickers into almost every home in the country, children are still abducted and trafficked without it. In 2006, 15-year-old Debbie (last name removed for safety) was kidnapped from her own driveway with her mother in the house and just an ear shot away. Debbie was then gang raped and drugged by her captors until she was prostituted out on the worst streets in Phoenix. Eventually Debbie was put out on Craigslist in an ad and forced to have sex with at least 50 men a day as well as being regularly gang raped by the men who kidnapped her. In May 2007, Las Vegas -- a major destination for domestically trafficked children -- identified more than 400 child prostitutes on its streets. In the prior 22 months, 226 domestically trafficked minors' cases were adjudicated in Las Vegas involving children from 28 different home states.
With pimps and traffickers being able to both use the Internet and traditional abduction means enslaving and selling children, American domestic child trafficking has become an epidemic. At-risk children are not limited to runaways or children from broken homes. Instead, the Internet has provided pimps and traffickers a gateway into any middle-class home in America.
To combat this growing problem, the FBI, in conjunction with the Department of Justice and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, launched the Innocence Lost Initiative in 2003. Innocence Lost has since rescued more than 1,100 children and convicted over 600 pimps, madams, traffickers and associates. In 2006, the Department of Justice launched Project Safe Childhood, which combined law enforcement efforts, community action and public awareness in a compressive plan to reduce the incidence of sexual exploitation of children. Since the launch in 2006, the number of cases and defendants prosecuted in the U.S. increased by 40 percent. In 2008, Congress passed the Providing Resources, Officers, and Technology to Eradicate Cyber Threats to Our Children Act of 2008, or PROTECT Our Children Act (editors note: take that P.A.T.R.I.O.T. A.C.T.). The Act’s assessment reported a disturbing national trend showing increases in all types of child exploitation, including child pornography, online enticement of children for sexual purposes, commercial sexual exploitation of children, and child sex tourism.
In August 2010, the Department of Justice unveiled another new strategy to combat and prevent the exploitation of children. While the PROTECT Act authorized $1.05 billion over eight years to fund local agencies in battling Internet crimes against children, new threats to children and disturbing trends have tempered the Act’s effect. According to the Department of Justice, almost 800,000 children were reported missing last year with 2,200 reported missing each day. Research indicates that one in five girls and one in 10 boys will be sexually victimized before adulthood. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in seven online youths has received a sexual solicitation or approach over the Internet, and 4 percent have received an aggressive sexual solicitation through all the various sites discussed in this article.
The "good" news: A new government strategy will create 38 additional assistant U.S. attorney positions devoted to child exploitation cases specifically in the next year. It will launch a nationwide operation targeting the nation’s most dangerous sex offenders, and address the growing problem of child pornography. Still, it is not enough. We should all be outraged at the child/human trafficking reality in our country. What can you do? Becoming educated and contributing to organizations like Playgroundproject.com is a good start.
The author is deeply grateful for the research work of Alex Payne which meaningfully contributed to this article.