(Please note: This post is not for young eyes.)
Talk about putting feet on the James 1:27 command to look after orphans in their distress--I spent Saturday with the donors and staff of the anti-trafficking organization, Shared Hope International, listening to some sobering stories about the abuse and trafficking of minors for prostitution and pornography. It was Shared Hope's 10th anniversary celebration weekend. Despite the somber topic, there was hope--hope for change, hope for help, hope for God to use His people to address this injustice. We heard from many women who were abused as children, forced into a life of prostitution, and then rescued and recovered by the grace of God. Despite their horrific past lives, these women had tremendous joy and a new purpose in life to rescue other women and children trapped in the same situations.
I first became aware of Shared Hope five years ago. I decided to donate a percentage of my royalties of my first book to them. Since then, I've had the opportunity to attend a handful of events and meetings about Shared Hope and I've always left encouraged by what they are doing. The first annual meeting I attended had an international emphasis--we heard about the work Shared Hope was doing with partners in Amsterdam, India, Nepal and more. (For a quick overview, watch the short video embedded below.)
But this time, the focus was here at home.
As Shared Hope director of programs Melissa Snow explained, two years ago Shared Hope received a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to study child trafficking at 10 U.S. locations. People can easily assume that trafficking is a foreign problem, but it's not. And it's not just trafficking of foreign nationals within our borders. It is a huge problem for American children, too. The Department of Justice states that the average age of entry into prostitution is 12 to 14 years old. Shared Hope's field research confirmed that underage girls are the bulk of victims in the commercial sex markets--this includes pornography, stripping, escort services, and prostitution. The trafficking hubs are truck stops. The destination is often Las Vegas. And a large and often overlooked source is familial prostitution--the selling of one's family member for sex in exchange for drugs, shelter, or money. In nine out of the ten assessments of victims performed by Shared Hope reported that familial prostitution was a severe form of domestic minor sex trafficking in these communities.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
As I listened to these reports, I was struck by how often abuse began in the foster care homes. I'm not saying that foster care is a wholly broken system, but I do think more stable and non-abusive families need to get involved in fostering. One woman reported she was sexually abused as a preschooler in her very first night with a foster care family. That broke her down to where becoming a runaway and eventually a prostitute became inevitable. I encourage "open nesters" to think about how they can invest all their parenting skills and wisdom in this needy part of our population.
Second, churches need to become educated on this topic and aware of how to get involved when trafficking is suspected. If your church is near a truck stop, God may well have placed you there for such a time as this. To find out more, you can view a 40-minute training video that is divided into four segments and covers a range of topics related to domestic minor sex trafficking such as the application of federal law, the role of vulnerability, pimp control, and effective responses. There is also a glaring need for protective shelters for child trafficking victims. Shared Hope has only identified one such protective facility specifically working with these victims.
Third, we need to object to the glorification of the pimp culture. It's become normalized in our culture--currently referenced in 25 songs and a few TV shows. But this is no light matter. Pimps are modern-day slave traders and should not be celebrated. Teens need to know what they are popularizing so they can rightfully stand up against it.
Fourth, men have the opportunity to respond to the challenge offered by The Defenders USA, an operation of Shared Hope International. The Defenders USA is a coalition of men who are opposed to all forms of commercialized sex. Supporters sign a pledge not to participate in any way in the commercial sex industry, to hold their friends accountable to do the same, and to protect others from the industry. This group also organizes truck-stop protests.
Fifth, if you witness minor trafficking or observe suspicious behavior, call the U.S. Department of Justice’s Trafficking in Persons & Workers Exploitation Task Force Hotline at 1-888-428-7581. This phone number is secure and anonymous. (It's important to note that federal law rightly sees exploited children as victims. In eight of the ten locations Share Hope studied, children are being detained in the juvenile justice system for prostitution or charges related to their exploitation. This is in direct conflict with their victim status under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the federal law that identifies commercially sexually exploited children as trafficking victims. Many state trafficking laws do not align with the federal law.)
Finally, please pray for and financially support the work Shared Hope is doing around the world.