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America's child sex trade

November 14, 2009

Autumn is the beginning of a dangerous season for the youngest victims of the sex trade. Sports championships, beginning with the World Series in October, are magnets for traffickers. In upcoming weeks, authorities say, dozens of children will be transported as prostitutes to the National Football League playoffs, the Super Bowl and, in the spring and summer, the NBA finals and other tournaments. But these days, along with the teams and the fans, the FBI will be there too.

Most Americans have heard about children forced into the sex trade, but the recent arrest of 60 suspected pimps and the rescue of 52 children from organized sex rings across the United States should end the illusion that this terrible crime happens only in other countries. In fact, since the FBI started its Innocence Lost National Initiative six years ago, nearly 900 children have been rescued. None of the children rescued in the sweep in late October were brought into the United States from elsewhere. Many were runaways from broken homes. The youngest was 10 years old.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that 100,000 children are trapped in the organized sex trade in the U.S. The National Runaway Switchboard, a 24-hour hotline, says that one of every three teens living on the street is lured into prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home. And the victims are not always runaways. One 13-year-old girl found in an earlier FBI sweep thought she was going for a modeling shoot and wound up being sold to customers up and down the West Coast.

There is some good news. One of the accomplishments of the Innocence Lost program has been to change local law enforcement's assumptions about "underage prostitution." To some, prostitution connotes a victimless crime, but these children are treated as commodities, moved from one city to another, often in anticipation of large gatherings of men. Truck stops, casinos and sporting events are common sites.

At the local level, much remains to be done. State and municipal laws against prostitution often are feeble weapons against sex traffickers; it is federal involvement that has resulted in pimps getting more than a slap on the wrist, with sentences of 20-plus years for a handful of the worst culprits and, in one case, a life sentence. California is an exception; it has stiffened state penalties and increasingly treated the crime as modern-day slavery rather than as sex for money between consenting partners. More states should follow suit. The national effort to save children is most effective when local law enforcement agencies recognize trafficking as a homegrown problem, not a faraway phenomenon.

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