Civil Rights

Our nation's fight against trafficking needs to intensify

The opportunity to serve at a federal level working against the trafficking of children and youth, an issue I've committed the last 21 years of my life to fighting, would under normal circumstances be an honor. These are not normal circumstances.

I've been asked to serve on the National Advisory Committee on Trafficking of Children and Youth under the Department of Health and Human Services. I am, however, declining. I am accountable to the youth we serve and accountable to what I know about why youth become vulnerable to trafficking, struggle to exit, recover and build healthy lives. 

There have been claims since the inauguration about wide scale arrests of trafficking "rings" and that Trump has done more to address trafficking than any other president. Not only are the numbers that are used for comparison completely different sets of metrics, initiatives like Operation Cross Country were created under previous administrations, not this one. While Trump has signed high profile anti-trafficking bills, so did the last two presidents, arguably ones that were actually supported through funding and by their administrations' own messaging.

While for segments of Twitter and even parts of the anti-trafficking movement, it's far easier and more tantalizing to accept stories about trafficking "rings" being "busted" thereby reducing the issue to a simple paradigm of rescue girls, arrest bad men, the truth is, of course, more nuanced than that.

The frequently used imagery of young, white children, (American citizens naturally), who are pictured in the dumbed-down sensationalized public awareness campaigns with duct tape over their mouths, in handcuffs and chains, imploring the public for rescue ignores that complexity. This depiction is definitely not representative of what the commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking of youth in this country looks like, nor what policies are needed.

Trafficking in the U.S. looks like the youth from Appalachia to Boston to Minnesota to Oakland, 70 percent of whom have grown up in and out of the child welfare system, 80 to 90 percent with severe childhood trauma and whose attempts at surviving will be completely decimated by cuts to food stamps, to public housing, to every service deemed non-essential by this administration.

It looks like the survivor who texted me while she and her three children hid in the dark, petrified, as ICE banged on her door at 1am but who was luckier than the survivor who showed up for her appearance at the Human Trafficking Intervention Court, a program designed to provide services to help victims escape trafficking instead of incarceration, only to be detained by ICE.

Young women who, according to the president's current lawyer Rudy Giuliani, have no credibility because they are involved in the commercial sex industry. Or like the survivors with multiple arrests for prostitution on their records who are entitled to have their convictions vacated as trafficking victims in order to move forward with their lives but whose funding for legal services through the Office of Victims of Crime was recently taken away by this administration. It looks like the young women, overwhelmingly youth of color and of which 40 percent identify as LGBTQ, that we serve every day who don't believe this administration cares about them being trafficked or about people of color period.

I have worked on this issue in a variety of capacities under two prior administrations and have been honored to be a part of federal legislative efforts and national policy work. Survivors' leadership on this issue has been invaluable and helped change perspectives and policy. I'm glad that we have moved the needle far enough that it's become an expectation rather than an exception for survivor leaders to be involved in efforts like this committee.

However, anything this committee might achieve will be like scooping water out of the ocean with a teacup, while our children drown. The larger structural inequities that are being strengthened each day, the policies that only make marginalized youth more vulnerable, and an administration that seemingly devalues women and girls are what will have a lasting impact on our nation's fight against the trafficking of youth.

With that said, I hope in the future that I'm able to contribute at a federal level to fight against the trafficking of children, (and adults), but at this moment, in these abnormal times, I'm declining the invitation to be part of this committee.

Rachel Lloyd is the CEO and founder of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), the nation's leading organization serving commercially sexually exploited and domestically trafficked girls and young women for the last two decades. She is also the co-executive producer of the Showtime documentary Very Young Girls and the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Girls Like Us.

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