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  HOME | Opinion (Click here for more)

Sarnoff: How Many Safe Houses Exist in the United States?

By Conchita Sarnoff

Where are the safe houses for trafficked children?

As director of Alliance to Rescue Victims of Trafficking, a Washington D.C. non-profit, I’m still searching.

In Europe, Latin America, Israel, even in India, many religious organizations such as temples, monasteries, convents, orphanages, boarding schools, and parochial schools, provide refuge for indigent and trafficked children and displaced teens.

The average age of entry to be trafficked into the sex trade, according to Thorn Technology, is 12-14 years. These include children trafficked from Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia and the rest of the world.

Many children end up as ‘content’ for large networks that produce films for the child porn industry: images and videos that depict the sexual exploitation of a child and are circulated digitally across the globe on a daily basis.

The profits are enormous. The InterAmerican Development Bank places profits at $32 Billion worldwide. The audiences: pedophiles, pedophile sites and retailers of pornographic content.

“Child pornography is a global business and the United States remains the largest producer and consumer of child abuse content in the world.”


Doesn’t the U.S. have sufficient alternative entertainment?

In the past two decades, technology has facilitated instant consumption of pornography and made content easy to access. There are more people working in the child porn industry today than ever before. This monstrous condition continues to test law enforcement’s ability to prosecute criminals; challenge state laws that help identify traffickers and pedophiles; prosecute content creators; and protect victims.

Since the advent of the Internet, prosecution has become a daunting task for law enforcement and the United States Courts. “In 2011, The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) reviewed 17.3 million images and videos of suspected child pornography cases-- that number was 4000% more than a study conducted in 2007.”

Sadly, the precise number of children trafficked into and across the U.S. is at best uncertain. This is due to several factors:

  • The child must first be detained.
  • Local law enforcement officers who detain victims must first identify the crime before booking the child. The right questions must be asked.
  • Trafficked children are not prostitutes legally or otherwise.
  • The Illicit nature of the crime makes it challenging to identify perpetrators and victims.
  • The greater percentage of child victims do not have a home, refuge, or friend to stay with if they decide to escape.

This predicament forces them to stay with their perpetrator rather than risk homelessness.

In 2013, according to MissingKids.com, one in seven runaways was endangered in the United States and likely to be trafficked for sex. These are staggering figures yet despite the current statistics the United States does not provide government funding to house child victims.

The government’s current solutions when addressing the lack of safe houses for survivors is to place the child victim in foster care or shelters, both unacceptable answers since each is incapable of providing rescue and rehabilitative programs.

The question then remains: Why does the United States continue to have this problem? Is it because children who are trafficked in the U.S. are indigent, many from neighboring Latin American countries? Is it because a greater percentage of victims are foreign born? Does the government believe vulnerable children “cost too much to maintain?” As a former U.S. government official once explained.

Whatever the reason, the United States lags far behind Europe and Latin America in providing housing for survivors.

The U.S. State Department claims that between 100,000 to 300,000 children are trafficked for sex every year. Given the alarming statistics, if the numbers are accurate, then it is time the government’s 15 federal agencies responsible for the welfare of trafficked victims, including the current administration, revisit the bylaws incorporated in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and the more recent congressional bills passed to create safe havens for victims across the country.

An even more daunting phenomenon is the growing mobile industry and its powerful influence in the selling of children for sex. There are 1.75 Billion reported smart phone users in 2014. The global reach of social networks and online advertising is intimidating. If the United States government does not find a way to stop the trafficking of children online, illicit child porn activities, “sexting” and online distribution of child porn content, it will find itself behind the eight ball in less than five years and unable to control this runaway train.

In the current Wild Wild West of mobile telephony, ‘sextortion’ “a form of sexual exploitation that does not always include physical harm as a form of coercion in order to extort sexual favors from a victim, abuse of power has become the primary means of coercion via cellular phones to force a child to sell sex.”

It seems to me that if we’re serious as a people and a nation about protecting our children and rescuing victims, then housing the victims and rehabilitating survivors is the first step forward.

The Lily Pad Safe House opened in 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Conchita Sarnoff is Executive Director of The Alliance to Rescue Victims of Trafficking WWW.ATRVT.ORG; a Washington D.C. foundation to help rescue trafficked victims.


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