Trafficked Teens Have New Hope

Programs and legislation aim to decrease sex
trafficking in the nation's capital

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In the middle of the night last winter, Tina Frundt picked up a phone call she'd been waiting for. The woman on the other end was angry and frustrated, but ready to take a risk. After years on the streets, she told Frundt she was finally ready to escape her pimp.

"We were her last hope," says Frundt, the founder of Courtney's House, a Washington, DC-based group that helps commercially sexually exploited children rebuild their lives. The 29-year-old caller, whom Frundt calls "Amanda" for safety and privacy, was first put out on the streets as a prostitute when she was 14.

Months earlier, Amanda decided to reach out for help. But she couldn't get the help she wanted, Frundt says--not from the church volunteer or the sex worker advocate. Neither offered her much beyond prayer, support, and condoms. So she called a national hotline, but was put on hold.

Frundt knew exactly how to help. She knew what Amanda meant by being ready to square up, and she knew the risks of doing so. She knew the right questions to ask: "How many exit doors do you have?" "When is your pimp gone?" "When are you leaving town?"

Frundt knew because she'd been there, too.

In the 1980s, when Frundt tried to leave the Life--slang for the environment and rules of sex trafficking--she was arrested for prostitution and sent to jail for a year. Now she is part of what she calls a "growing network" of survivor advocates in the United States paving the way for a future in which trafficked girls have a place to turn. Under federal law, any person made to commit a commercial sex act through "force, fraud, or coercion" is a victim of trafficking. Although the word trafficking suggests movement, no movement is needed for trafficking to occur. Those under 18 who perform a sex act against their will are automatically considered victims of trafficking under the law.

But trafficked youth continue to end up in the criminal justice system or are labeled delinquents or habitual runaways, says Karen Stauss, Director of Programs at Free the Slaves, an organization that works to end modern forms of slavery--like trafficking--around the world. State laws are not properly responsive, Stauss says, so youth are treated like criminals, not victims. And because many law enforcement officials are not trained to recognize a trafficking victim, they often see the child as delinquent.

For years, advocates have pushed for state laws that allow child trafficking victims to be treated as victims. The most far-reaching of these laws, called Safe Harbor laws, mandate the removal of victims of commercial sexual exploitation from the criminal justice and juvenile delinquency systems and secure protection, specialized care, and services for victims. Currently, Connecticut, New York, Illinois, and Washington have Safe Harbor laws, according to the Polaris Project, an antitrafficking organization based in Washington, DC. The majority of states have at least basic provisions in place to protect and care for child victims, although Hawaii, Massachusetts, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming currently lack any form of legislation. (See Polaris Project's human trafficking map on page 28 to find out more about each state.)

Last year, Frundt joined advocates in pushing forward legislation that made human trafficking a crime in the nation's capital, the Prohibition Against Human Trafficking Amendment Act. The bill, passed in June, mandates victim assistance, requires the District of Columbia to collect and publish data on trafficking, and makes child pornography illegal. The legislation was a huge victory, Frundt says, in spreading awareness of trafficking in Washington. "When I was forced out on the street," she says, "we didn't have this support."

Frundt founded Courtney's House in 2008 in Washington, after six years spent working with victims at Polaris Project. Early this year, Courtney's House will open a group home for victims age 12 to 18 in an undisclosed location--the first such home in the metropolitan area. For now, they work out of a donated row house, where they hold 24-hour emergency services and support groups for victims ages 12 to 21, as well as homeschooling, dance therapy, pet therapy, art therapy, and yoga.

Courtney's House is just one of a handful of survivor-led organizations in the United States providing tailored and specialized services for domestic minor victims. Similar organizations include Veronica's Voice in Kansas City, GEMS in New York City, and Breaking Free in St. Paul.

Among the hallmarks of the Courtney's House approach is its "street outreach" program. On weekend nights, from 12:30 to 5:30 a.m., teams of Courtney's House staff and trained volunteers descend on the city's commercial sex hotspots, or tracks, to reach out to suspected trafficking victims. They also approach those who may come in contact with a child victim, such as the homeless, doormen, hotel workers, taxi drivers, and firemen. The 35 street outreach volunteers each had to go through rigorous training, including a self-defense class.

Months before Amanda's call, Courtney's House volunteers approached her as she was working the track, Frundt says. They slipped her the Courtney's House hotline number, concealed within an everyday object a pimp wouldn't confiscate. Frundt refuses to share details about those objects.

After Amanda first contacted Courtney's House, Frundt relied on text messages to communicate with her. Amanda asked about programs, how she would get out, and where she would stay. While Frundt devised a safety plan to help Amanda escape her pimp, the two women continued to communicate via text message. Through their conversations, Frundt helped Amanda feel comfortable with her decision to leave the Life, and helped her make a plan for leaving.

"One afternoon she called us and said 'okay, I left, I followed it exactly, I'm now at a gas station. Come pick me up,'" Frundt recalls, "and we went and got her."

The street outreach program has been so successful, Frundt says, that she is bringing the model to other states and cities across America. And she's being recognized for her efforts. In November, Frundt became the first American ever to win the Frederick Douglass Award, awarded by Free the Slaves. The award honors an individual who has survived a form of slavery and is now using his or her life in freedom to assist others.

"I understand the networks, I understand how girls are trafficked. I understand how a pimp works, because I lived it," Frundt says. Frundt was 14 and in foster care in Chicago when a man 10 years older approached her as she was heading to a neighborhood store. He listened to her and began to buy her gifts and drive her to school, building her trust. Eventually, he promised her love and a dream home if only she would prove she really loved him by doing anything he asked. After an argument with her foster mother, Frundt ran away with her "boyfriend" to Cleveland, where she soon met the three other girls in their "family." Before long, she was raped and put onto the streets, made to meet a $500 quota each night. Frundt was beaten, denied food and water, and forced to sleep in a closet. Her pimp burned her with cigarettes and broke her arm and finger.

Frundt says this is the same scenario she sees over and over. Pimps target the most vulnerable youth and slowly build their trust with fake promises of a better life. Another common pathway into sex trafficking, she says, is a parent who sells his or her child for money or drugs.

Trafficking experts estimate that at least 100,000 American minors are caught in the domestic sex trade. Those most at risk include foster youth, runaway, and homeless youth, as well as children who come from unstable home lives where they experience physical and sexual abuse. According to research from the National Institute of Justice, victims of child sexual abuse are, in their lifetimes, 28 times more likely to be arrested for prostitution than a person who has never been a victim of child sexual abuse.

"Pimps in the United States really are masters of manipulation," says Melissa Snow, director of programs at Shared Hope International, an organization that rescues and rehabilitates victims of sex trafficking around the world. "They target these youth who have no confidence or understanding of what a normal relationship looks like."

Shared Hope works to train law enforcement and child welfare professionals, who Snow says are the "most important people in terms of preventing or intervening." Unfortunately, she says, often child welfare professionals do not have the training or knowledge to recognize signs of trafficking. Snow underscores the importance of survivor-informed and trauma- informed care, such as that which Courtney's House provides. "To build holistic and effective restoration," Snow says, "it's imperative that individuals who are attempting to work with this population understand what that sort of care looks like."

After Amanda's rescue, Frundt took her to the store and bought her food, clothes, and toiletries. In the store, the 29-year-old was overwhelmed to the point of panic. "Things had been bought for her and forced upon her since she was 14," Frundt says. "She never had a choice about what deodorant or makeup or body wash to buy, so something simple like what kind of shampoo she'd like to use became a really traumatic thing."

The next day, Amanda met with law enforcement officials, who let Courtney's House staff be present as police gathered information about her pimp. Amanda was never forced into a police station, which Frundt says was crucial to ensuring she did not feel like a criminal. Amanda is now receiving specialized counseling and services at a facility in a nearby state.

"We form relationships with our law enforcement partners so we can advocate for victims and make sure whoever's interviewing her has a victim-centered approach and is not going to treat her like a criminal," Frundt says. "Our part of that partnership is helping law enforcement build cases to put traffickers away and prosecute them."

These newly decorated bedrooms will soon be home to sexually exploited youth ages 12-18. Courtney's House, a group that helps commercially sexually exploited youth rebuild their live, will open the first such home in the Washington, DC area early this year.

Likewise, law enforcement relies on organizations like Courtney's House to get minors out of the sex trade and lock up pimps, says Washington, DC, police sergeant Morani Hines of the Crimes Against Children/Human Trafficking Unit of the Metropolitan Police Department. The unit, part of the Youth Investigation Branch, is comprised of one lieutenant, one sergeant, and three detectives. They are mandated to respond anytime to anyone--including a uniformed officer--who reports they saw a suspected juvenile victim of prostitution. They are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Washington, DC, close to northeast commuter artery I-95, is a hub for trafficking. In 2003, the FBI named the city one of the nation's 13 "high intensity child prostitution areas," in addition to Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Dallas, Detroit, Tampa, Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego, Miami, New York City, Las Vegas, and St. Louis. In general, an influx of tourists and businesspeople create high demand, Hines says. To properly respond to victims of sex trafficking, his unit has trained hundreds of officers.

But even with training, detective John Andrews concedes the difficulty of reaching child victims, many who have been exploited by other males--and in some cases by law enforcement--and who have been taught to avoid police at all costs. "Victims are brainwashed that police are the enemy, that police are going to lock them up, that police are going to take things from them when really we're here to help," Andrews says.

Without proof of trafficking, police may charge a minor with a civil offense just to get her off the street. Those charges, Andrews says, are erased from the minor's record when she turns 18. "We have to utilize the law to our advantage and use some of the tools in our belt, because our ultimate goal is to get that victim out of the lifestyle and prosecute the individual that sold that child," Hines says. "In some instances, the only way you can get to that specific pimp is to arrest the victim, hold the victim, and after some short-term treatment is given, they'll be ready to talk and to assist with the investigation," he says.

Snow advises law enforcement to make victims feel more comfortable before questioning. "Some of these girls haven't eaten in three to four days, and they have STDs," she says. "How can someone sit down and tell you what they've just experienced when their most basic human needs aren't being met?" Fifteen to 30 times a day, for years, Snow says, they've forced themselves to become numb. And the process of relaying memories can unearth incredible, paralyzing pain.

In the period after a victim is taken off the streets and brought into custody, law enforcement seeks information to build a case against the pimp. Hines says survivors like Frundt make his job easier. "Most victims can relate to another female who's been involved in the lifestyle," Hines says. "If you can relate to someone and they can relate to you, you're more likely to get them out of that situation and to get them to listen."

Once a youth is released from custody, police make arrangements for shelter. Due to a lack of housing specifically for this population, most youth are placed in foster care or residential treatment facilities. Currently, there are less than 60 beds in the entire United States reserved for this population, Snow says. She adds the number is growing by the day. "There are a lot of facilities that have one or two beds for homeless or runaway youth who are servicing trafficking victims whether they know it or not," she says.

The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2005 specifically authorized $5 million for shelters for minor victims. But because the act did not specify an agency to administer the program, no money has been requested in appropriations, and those funds have yet to be spent. The Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking and Victims Support Act, which passed the Senate in December, would have provided six $2.5 million block grants, including for shelter and services for victims. However, the bill did not pass the House of Representatives before the congressional session adjourned.

"We do this presentation [for law enforcement]," Snow says, "and we say, 'they're victims, they're victims, they're victims,' and law enforcement says, 'great, we're on board now, now let's get these girls off the streets, but where do we take them?'"

After a victim exits the Life, and the physical, sexual, and psychological abuse that defines it, the struggle to rehabilitate begins. A trafficked girl has been enslaved, explains Stephanie Van Deusen, a psychologist who works with female trauma survivors. She says a child trafficking victim "is completely dehumanized and terrorized. Their sense of being a part of the human race, of having value, is shattered."

To empower survivors, Frundt insists her clients get involved in their own healing process. Before Frundt speaks at an event or conference, she asks for her clients' opinions on her prepared speech. "They always tell me they want to do what I'm doing," she says.

Ideally, she says, her clients can help other survivors. Each month, Frundt and her clients host a dinner for women and girls off the street and invite them into the Courtney's House office to talk. When victims end up in an advocacy role or develop a passion for helping other survivors, Van Deusen says, "They have been able to transform their wound."

Frundt says all it takes is someone "positive in your corner" who has been there and who has prevailed. "Someone to help you, someone to show you," she says. Some of the girls, she says, call her "mom." She is fiercely protective of her young clients, allowing them the time they need to process their trauma and tell their story.

"I specifically designed every program we offer because I did not have that program offered to me years ago," Frundt says. "I wish somebody would have been there because nobody was there for me. They told me I would never amount to anything, my whole life. No one encouraged me."

She's now encouraged by the growing public and legislative support for trafficking victims. But still, she says, there is not nearly enough out there. Already there is a lengthy waitlist for space in Courtney's House.

"It's hard," Frundt says. "How do you choose?"

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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