Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Region Needs To Wake Up To Teen Sex Trafficking

The Tampa Tribune
July 13, 2008

Last month, FBI Director Robert Muller announced a nationwide sweep of pimps who trade in the most abhorrent form of prostitution - child prostitution.

Tampa was one of the 16 cities mentioned by the FBI. That may be shocking to some, but authorities say child prostitution is common, if little noticed, in the region.

Tampa's inclusion on the FBI's list underscores the need for a concerted local effort to wipe out this vicious crime.

The local office of the FBI is tight-lipped on the case that was included in Muller's announcement of Operation Cross Country.

Officials say only that one child was recovered in a joint investigation with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. The FBI says the investigation is continuing into what might be a case of multiple pimps and multiple victims.

The local child was one of 21 rescued nationwide during Operation Cross Country, and one of 433 rescued in the five years of the FBI's Innocence Lost initiative.

The law does recognize the pimping of children - formally known as domestic minor sex trafficking - as a serious offense. It's considered human trafficking in federal law, and Florida law has made it a first-degree felony to recruit, transport or coerce a child into prostitution.
But the laws have been inconsistently enforced.

This spring, Shared Hope International released a report on child sex trafficking in the Tampa Bay area that concluded teen prostitutes were largely hidden from view and the legal system tended to consider them criminals, not victims. The organization, headed by former U.S. Rep. Linda Smith, concluded there was "an acute lack of awareness" that allowed pimps to ply their trade and victims to go unnoticed.

Smith says the biggest problem is that the law enforcement and social workers most likely to encounter young prostitutes have not been viewing them as victims, but as individuals who have chosen to break the law.

The reality is many of the youngsters are brainwashed by their pimps, dependent on them for drugs and have been taught not to trust authorities.

Local court systems are not particularly punitive to teen prostitutes - most plead guilty to lesser charges and are released. But they often return to their pimps, and Smith says law enforcement generally hasn't focused on bringing charges against the pimps or traffickers.
And the teens aren't getting the kind of counseling and rehabilitation services they need to break free of their pimps, Smith says.

So for now, the practice of prostituting minors goes largely unchecked. Yet the victims are not hard to find: They are the boys and girls being ferried up and down Florida's highways, where they sell their bodies at truck stops. They are brought to town for major conventions and sporting events. They are even sold to tourists, who don't have to go all the way to Thailand to sexually exploit a child.

Consider the case of Wayne Banks Jr., an Ohio man who was arrested in Florida after beating up one of his teen prostitutes. He is now serving an unprecedented 40-year sentence for child sex trafficking.

"They were like a traveling sales company: city to city to city," Escambia County Sheriff's Detective Troy Brown told the Toledo Blade. "They'd been to Tampa, Miami, Atlanta."
Law enforcement agencies are notably aggressive when it comes to protecting children from child pornographers or from predators who try to entice victims via the Internet.

But the youngsters working the streets and truck stops are often viewed with less sympathy.
It is easy to forget they are only children - and children worth saving. Tampa's place on the FBI's list should alert us all to the need to furiously combat the vile trade that sells their bodies and steals their souls.

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