Human trafficking in our own backyard: Its inhuman

As Passover approaches and we reflect on the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and our liberation from slavery, it is timely to acknowledge the forms of bondage that persist today in our world.

Human trafficking is one of the most significant human rights issues to emerge in the 21st century. It is a form of modern-day slavery occurring internationally and in the United States. Victims include children involved in the sex trade and adults 18 or older who are coerced or deceived into different forms of labor or services, including commercial sex.

After drug trafficking, human trafficking is the world’s second most profitable illegal industry, estimated at $32 billion a year. Sadly, the Bay Area is a hub for human trafficking and a hot spot for child sex trafficking. The FBI has identified the Bay Area as one of the 13 worst areas in the country for the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

The typical image of a human trafficking survivor is a person from a developing country. Yet child sex trafficking survivors are primarily homegrown. Some 50 to 75 percent of these youth have prior involvement with the child welfare system. Many have histories of child abuse and neglect. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth are particularly at risk for commercial sexual activity, in part due to homophobic home lives that push them onto the street. Some youth are sexually trafficked as young as 12 or 13 years old.

While the sexual trafficking of children is not new, we are undergoing a systemic change in our response to these cases. Child sex trafficking is now recognized as a form of child sexual abuse. Children who are trafficked need to be treated as victims, not criminals. We need to talk about “prostituted children,” not “child prostitutes.”

Historically, these youth have been in the juvenile justice system. Yet arresting youth “for their own good” stigmatizes them. Federal and state law specifically define youth involved in commercial sex work as victims of human trafficking, even if no force or coercion is present. Yet under California criminal law, a child can still be charged with prostitution, an inconsistency that needs to be rectified.

Interventions can be challenging. These youth may not recognize themselves as “victims” or identify as exploited. Their exploiter may be the first adult who has given them positive attention. The youth can confuse this with love, even when the exploiter puts them out on the street to make money. Some youth may not have a pimp and may engage in “survival sex” to meet their basic needs.

Sex work can be a dangerous occupation, resulting in serious trauma. This is particularly true for those who enter into sex work before age 18 and who can suffer physical, psychological and developmental harms as a result.

The hopeful news is that help and support are available in the Bay Area. In San Francisco, we are revamping our response to child sex trafficking and are involving our child welfare system, which deals with child abuse, to interact with these youth. Mayor Ed Lee has convened a task force to address human trafficking, and responding to child sex trafficking tops the agenda. It is a holistic effort, staffed by the city’s Department on the Status of Women, with participation from law enforcement, public health, child welfare, the school district and community-based organizations that work with trafficking survivors.

So what can the general community do about this issue? If you work or volunteer with youth, educate yourself about the signs that a child may be sexually trafficked. Volunteer time or donate money to an organization that works with trafficked youth. Find organizations in the San Francisco Collaborative Against Human Trafficking’s Directory of Services for Victims of Human Trafficking at www.sfcaht.org.

Because some youth engage in commercial sex to meet their basic needs, support programs offer job training and skills development for youth at risk. Suspicious activity should be reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888.

As we celebrate the Exodus of the Jewish people from slavery this Passover, remember we cannot truly be free as long as some of us are enslaved.

Minouche Kandel is the director of women’s policy for the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women, where she staffs the Mayor’s Task Force on Anti Human Trafficking. She wrote this piece with Kristin Snell, a graduate policy fellow with the Department on the Status of Women.