Much ado about child sex trafficking: Dubious information behind the local “epidemic”

June 22, 2011

Richard Thomas
Zenith City Weekly

"Men stalking girls at schools and malls, only to sell them for sex, isn’t just happening in other countries. Sex trafficking happens every day in Minnesota.”


So began a May 5 broadcast by WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, about “Sex Trafficking on the North Shore.”


“More than three million people visit each year to see Duluth’s beauty,” the report continued. “Some come with a dark secret much deeper than the temptations that are easy to see. A secret that’s kept on ships, in the streets, and behind closed doors.”


A May 14 follow-up by WCCO reported that “Minnesota is one of the worst places in the country for buying women and selling them for sex. Studies show an average of 100 girls under the age of 18 are trafficked every month in this state.”


But WCCO cited only one case and it’s five years old. James Redd, who opened the Hip Hop Candy Shop in Duluth in 2006, pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting two teenage girls. Police reported he was transporting girls between Duluth and Minneapolis.


Far from denying such claims, local officials jumped to confirm them. On the morning of May 5, prior to the WCCO broadcast, St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin called a press conference on child trafficking—the sexual exploitation of minors for commercial purposes, such as prostitution and pornography.


At the press conference, local leaders expressed support for pending state legislation (HF556) that would amend Minnesota statutes to treat sexually exploited minors as victims rather than criminals.


“One of the things a lot of our citizens don’t realize is that this is happening here. This is happening in our own backyard,” Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay told those gathered for the press conference.


“Children, young girls, are being prostituted against their will. We have several ongoing cases that make it clear the depth of the problem, the sheer numbers that are occurring out there.”


St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman said, “It’s really easy for us to underestimate the prevalence of this problem. One hundred-to-three hundred thousand children are being trafficked in this country.


“I just read a very staggering statistic that this industry itself is a $32 billion a year industry, second only to the illegal drug trade and tied with illegal weapons.”


But when asked for statistics regarding child sex trafficking in Duluth, the officials who addressed the press conference could not provide any.


Sergeant Ann Clancey, head of the Duluth Police sex crimes unit, said, “Obviously, I can’t make too many comments about specifically what we’re doing. I can assure you that we have active cases and that we’re trying to be proactive in our struggle to fight against this kind of solicitation with minors and human trafficking.”


The presence of active cases must be relatively new. Last November, Clancey told University of Minnesota Duluth student Kelsey Fuhrman, who had received a grant to study the issue locally, that the unit has not had a sex trafficking case in at least two years.


“People say they see this, but we don’t have any concrete figures,” says Shunu Shreshta, coordinator of a task force created last fall by the American Indian Housing Community Organization and the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA).


The task force was formed to study sex trafficking in Duluth and includes a subcommittee to provide hard data, but there’s no timeline as to when their research will be completed.


So how do we know the problem is increasing locally? “We know it,” says Candace Harshner, Executive Director of PAVSA. She says the evidence is “mostly anecdotal, from the people we serve. We don’t have a whole lot of numbers.”


No one can deny sex trafficking occurs and, by its very nature, is hidden and hard to quantify, but highly suspect figures are cited as evidence that selling children for sex is reaching epidemic proportions.


Minnesota saw a 64.7 percent increase in just six months, according to a 2010 study by the Georgia-based “A Future. Not A Past” campaign (“To stop the prostitution of children in Georgia”), whose research keeps turning up in media, governmental, and victim advocate reports on the subject.


However, the campaign derived its figures by looking up adult Internet ads and counting the number of photos that appeared to depict females under 18, without any attempt to confirm their actual ages nor the legitimacy of the photos.


When pressed by a reporter, Future-Not-Past Director Kaffie McCullough acknowledged their research is questionable, but said it was necessary to get funding from the state legislature. “How can you justify millions of dollars when there are only hundreds of victims that you’re actually serving?” McCullough told Minneapolis City Pages [“Weird Science,” March 23, 2011].


The “$32 billion a year industry” cited by Litman as affecting 100,000 to 300,000 child victims nationwide actually reflects all human trafficking worldwide, including adults and not limited to the sex trade, according to a 2007 United Nations press release.


The Department of Justice (DOJ) is also a source for the 100,000 to 300,000 figure, citing a 2001 University of Pennsylvania study estimating 293,000 children are “at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation.”


The DOJ notes, “Comprehensive research to document the number of children engaged in prostitution in the United States is lacking.”


Between January 2008 and June 2010, DOJ task forces in 42 regions across the country investigated 1,106 cases of suspected sex trafficking of victims under 18. Only 248 were confirmed.


In 1999, Congress heard testimony that 50,000 sex slaves are brought into the United States every year. This figure was provided by an analyst from the Central Intelligence Agency, who based the estimate on foreign newspaper clippings.


By 2004, they lowered the number to 14,500 to 17,500. Two years later, the Attorney General told Congress even that may be too high.


In 2003, Newsweek quoted a claim by federal law enforcement that the Mall of America in Minneapolis is a “huge recruiting center” for teen prostitution.


The Federal Bureau of Investigation later backed off the claim when Bloomington Police said no one has ever been arrested at the Mall of America in relation to such crimes. Mall management noted law enforcement has never contacted them about such a problem.


Still, the Newsweek article continues to circulate on the Internet, used as a reference in the Wikipedia entry on “Prostitution in the United States” to support a claim that, “The Mall of America in Minnesota has been having a big problem with pimps picking up young girls while they are shopping.”


A 2010 report to the Minnesota legislature then perpetuated the story without any supporting evidence:

Juvenile prostitution can happen to virtually anyone’s child. This is illustrated by the growing number of suburban teen-age girls involved in prostitution. While living with parents in what appears to be stable families, these teens are recruited into prostitution by pimps who find them in such places as the Mall of America...


Yet advocates maintain the problem is extreme and has exploded with the growth of the Internet.


In September 2010, CraigsList.org removed its adult services listings in response to accusations that the free classifieds website was a vehicle for underage sex trafficking. Such advertisements continue on websites like BackPages.com and TheEroticReview.com.


Last March, the US Senate introduced the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act and new legislation is now pending in over a dozen states, including the Minnesota law that local officials gathered on May 5 to support.


In 2009, the Minnesota Indian Women’s Center produced a report, widely regarded as required reading on the subject, filled with heartrending stories like this one, told by a Duluth advocate:

I’m working with someone who’s been trafficked out by her family for a very long time. She’s probably 17 now or 18. Another girl we work with just reported a sexual assault against this girl, and our understanding of the intention was someone was trying to recruit her for prostitution, as a part of her ring.
And then that person sexually assaulted the girl, pretty brutally. Skin chunks out of her and things like that. That was woman on woman. The unfortunate part of that was that when this girl tried to report, a lot of people told her female on female wasn’t sexual assault, so it took her a long time to find any help. T

his guy [from one of the wealthy tribes] is buying gifts, buying a car for her. For one thing, he couldn’t get a car because he had no license and no credit or nothing.
She could buy the car with his money and then he could take it back at any time...then there’s the domestic abuse, and the addiction part.
And, so, in order to get the drugs and the money she has to be doing what he wants. Otherwise, she’ll get beat up.
And there’s also a gang connection involved in this, Native Mob. That other gang members will beat her up. Or other women that are connected with the other gang members and doing the same kind of thing will beat her up.


Peter Andreas, co-editor of Sex, Drugs and Body Counts: The Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict, addressed the issue of hard data:

When the United Nations announces, as it did several decades ago, that the global drug trade was worth $500 billion, that’s a memorable number. They later lowered that estimate to $400 billion, and an economist within the UN started questioning why that number. And apparently they rounded it up from 365 because it would, well, play better in the media and be more memorable.

It may, indeed, play better in the media, but, more importantly, does it help victims, when every dollar that goes to an outfit like the Georgia campaign—whose director acknowledges inflating the problem to obtain funding—is a dollar not spent on efforts to combat the less “memorable” kinds of child abuse that we can already prove are happening every day?

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