Across the country, newly formed task forces made up of local, state and federal law enforcement officers are starting to view what was once seen as run-of-the-mill prostitution as possible instances of sex trafficking.
With support and funding from the FBI and the Justice Department, agencies are starting to work together to identify and rescue sex trafficking victims and arrest their pimps.
The new approach is being hailed by victims of trafficking and their advocates as a much-needed paradigm shift — and, the FBI says, is reaping results.
Ron Riggin, a Maryland State Police sergeant who recently retired from a long career spent searching for missing children and runaways, says he's been aware of the problem for some time, but just hasn't had the resources or cooperation to effectively combat it. The recent infusion of support and coordination from the feds, he says, has been a game changer.
"At this point, there's a federal task force that covers just about every state in the union, as far as I know, so that makes it easy for us when we have interstate cases," Riggin said recently during a Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force sting operation near Baltimore. To tackle the problem, the task force regularly peruses online escort ads, conducts stings, and offers services and support to the women they encounter.
Some sex worker advocates say that the approach is throwing the net too wide and leading to the arrests of too many women who are in control of their situations.
But the feds point to their results as their justification. Since 2008, task forces like the one Riggin is a part of have recovered more than 2,700 sexually trafficked children and convicted more than 1,350 pimps.
Looking For A Sense Of Belonging
The volume of cases is exposing a problem that has long been hidden in plain sight: Child prostitution, or sex trafficking of minors, happens in every state in the country, in poor and rich communities alike. And more often than not, victims are children and are American-born.
"Typically they are not the ones who are highly supervised at home," Riggin says. "I think they are running away from something at home, whether it's emotional or physical abuse or lack of love, or call it what you will. There is usually a reason they are leaving home. They don't have a reason to go to somebody."
The pimps, Riggin says, give the victims the attention and sense of belonging that vulnerable children desire.
The emergence of social media and online escort ads, experts say, has only exacerbated the long-standing problem.
"This can happen in any town," says Ron Hosko, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division. "We've seen it happen in very affluent areas of the country. Each of our field offices has reported these crimes, so we think that it's everywhere."
Last year, Hosko oversaw a team that uncovered a sex trafficking ring in affluent Fairfax County, Va. In that case, gang members recruited several adult women and at least eight high school girls through social media networks and contacts inside local schools. They plied them with drugs and alcohol, and controlled them with violence and intimidation.
Getting To The Local Level
Congress changed the legal definition of sex trafficking in 2000 to include recruiting or transporting a person by force, fraud "or coercion." As minors are legally unable to give their informed consent, anyone under the age of 18 is typically considered a victim.
It wasn't until 2008, though, that federal efforts to bring local protocol more in line with federal law took off. Since then, the FBI and DOJ have pumped resources into training law enforcement officers around the country on what to look for, how to approach potential victims, and how to connect them with services like housing, job training and counseling.
They have also made it a priority to gather evidence needed to prosecute their pimps.
The number of sex trafficking cases investigated and prosecuted at the local level is not yet known, but the FBI is gathering that data for the first time as part of its 2013 Uniform Crime Report.
Advocates, including Suzanne Tomatore of the Freedom Network, a national coalition of anti-human trafficking service organizations, say the new approach is making a difference.
But, she adds, there's still a ways to go — in training officers, in providing resources to those who want to help the victims build new lives and in making sure that victims' rights are protected.
"We all want to do the right thing, but I think it is important that the individual rights come first and [the victims] aren't pressured into cooperating with law enforcement," she says.
Renee Murrell, a victims advocate at the FBI field office in Baltimore, says that just a few years ago, most police departments dealt with these cases as child prostitution and simply put the victims into juvenile detention facilities.
"[A victim] was seen as a delinquent child," she says. "Because they're giving her drugs, so she may have a drug charge. She might get a shoplifting charge. All of that was masked as the issue when the trafficking was really the issue."
Of course, many law enforcement agencies still take that approach.
Hosko says that mindset is still the biggest ongoing obstacle for federal efforts to recast child prostitution cases.
"If a particular local law enforcement officer sees what they perceive as purely a prostitution issue, and they don't dig deeper or take it to the next level, or don't collaborate with someone who is interested in taking it to the next level, it is a revolving door," he says.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish.
The fight against prostitution in the U.S. is changing dramatically. Police are beginning to treat prostitutes, especially those under 18, not as criminals but as victims of sex trafficking. While the FBI is behind this new approach, the day-to-day work of finding victims and helping them off the street largely falls to local police and state troopers.
NPR's Jessica Pupovac recently shadowed a state task force during a sex trafficking sting operation, and came back with the story.
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JESSICA PUPOVAC, BYLINE: It's 5:00 p.m. at the criminal investigation headquarters just outside of Baltimore. Maryland State Police Corporal Chris Heid is trolling online escort ads.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELPHONE)
PUPOVAC: Heid is going undercover, looking for child prostitutes. He's setting up fake dates all over the area.
CORPORAL CHRIS HEID: Hi, is this Coco(ph)? How are you? Good. This is Mark. I was calling to see about getting time available?
PUPOVAC: Heid sits in his cubicle, surrounded by city and county police officers and two FBI agents.
HEID: Would you do half hour or hours?
PUPOVAC: But they aren't looking to make arrests, not tonight. Their mission tonight is to find prostitutes and get them into victim assistance programs.
HEID: Hi. Is this Lala(ph)?
PUPOVAC: They also want to get the pimps.
HEID: Are you working tonight?
PUPOVAC: These officers are part of a growing movement in law enforcement, one that sees all underage and much adult prostitution as sex trafficking, where pimps manipulate and control their victims physically or otherwise. All over the country, law enforcement agencies like these are joining together. Along with victim advocates and social service providers, they are creating anti-human trafficking task forces, and going after the problem with every tool available to them.
HEID: Oh, 15 minutes? OK, sounds good. I'll see you in a little bit. Bye-bye.
So we'll - she's going to text me the address, and then we'll wait, and then we'll head out.
PUPOVAC: By 6:00 p.m., Corporal Heid has lined up a few dates and is ready to go.
(SOUNDBITE OF A VEHICLE)
HEID: You know where you're going, Dave?
HEID: Who else is riding with you?
DAVE: Mark(ph) is.
(SOUNDBITE OF A VEHICLE)
PUPOVAC: The team heads out in three unmarked police cars. There's a long night ahead. By the end of it, they'll visit three motels and talk to five young women. Some of the girls they meet will say they're doing sex work because they want to. Some will say they have no other way to make a living. But two of them will take the officers up on their offer and get off the streets.
Corporal Heid takes off by himself in the lead car. I ride with Sergeant Ron Riggin. It's one of the last times that Riggin will go out on a sting before he retires from a long career tracking and rescuing missing children and runaways. Most of the sex trafficking victims he finds fit one or both of those categories.
SERGEANT RON RIGGIN: We've taken girls out of hotel rooms, 12 and 13 years old, up to 17 years old. So we've seen a little bit of everything.
PUPOVAC: I ask Sergeant Riggin how it is that teenagers wind up selling sex online. He says that it isn't always about the money.
RIGGIN: I think they are running away from something at home, whether it is emotional or physical abuse or a lack of love or call it what you will but...
(SOUNDBITE OF A WALKIE-TALKIE)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...says there is a black male...
PUPOVAC: The other teams have arrived at the motel and are waiting in their cars across the street. They see two females and one male leave the room that Heid's so-called date is in. That group heads for the motel next door. Riggin says the only male is most likely the pimp. Some of the officers followed the three that left. I stay with Riggin and an FBI agent who follow Corporal Heid.
RIGGIN: Where's the stairway up?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Probably on the other side.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOORS)
PUPOVAC: They ask me to stay outside. A few minutes later, Riggin emerges.
What's going on in there?
RIGGIN: We're trying to get her to tell us who's in the room. She's a little scared right now so...
PUPOVAC: She won't reveal much about the other three in the other motel. The officers say they can connect her with victim's services but she refuses. But when they run her ID, she has an arrest warrant in a nearby county. Riggin calls that county's headquarters and an officer comes to pick her up.
RIGGIN: Alright, appreciate it. Thank you.
PUPOVAC: Heid says she was hardened and not very cooperative, so he just gave her his card in case she changes her mind. He hopes that with some time and distance she just might. Sometimes, he says, in the heat of the moment, girls don't know what to do but act tough. But Riggin says that isn't always the case.
RIGGIN: We've had people reach out to us in the room, even with other people there, for help. And they do it sort of slickly. But just recently, one of them did to Chris. And he told me I'm going to go interview her in another room, I said sure. But she wanted help and she wanted out. And so, that's a good day when we get somebody who wants our help.
PUPOVAC: Riggin and Heid move on to the motel next door where their partners are already questioning the three people. One of those girls, with greasy hair and cutoff jeans, says she hasn't eaten for two days. The second girl wearing a see-through gauze dress is crying and chain-smoking
Since they don't have any hard evidence against the suspected pimp, they have to let him go. But the girls are a different story. The girls they want to get to a safe place. After some conversation, the first girl accepts a ride to a safe house where, in the morning, she'll meet with a counselor. But first, she needs some food - that Riggin can help with.
We head to the drive-thru at the KFC/Taco Bell next door.
RIGGIN: How far did you make it in school?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I'm still in high school, 11th grade.
RIGGIN: Are you still enrolled?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Mm-hmm.
RIGGIN: And when was the last time you went?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I don't know.
PUPOVAC: Before she gets her food, we learn that the other girl has also agreed to come to the safe house. The officers don't expect either of them to give up their pimps tonight. But they hope that eventually they'll come around, and maybe even help law enforcement build a case against him.
RIGGIN: And then, instead of saying, is that your trafficker 10 feet away from you, in front of him, we can get her out of the situation and we can take days, weeks or months before they might, you know, reveal something to us - might disclose. Sometimes that's what it takes. But she's definitely worth it. She's 18. Maybe we have a shot.
PUPOVAC: Another officer agrees to drive them to the safe house. So Riggin says goodbye.
RIGGIN: Take your chalupas. I don't want to see you back out here.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: OK.
PUPOVAC: These are the only two girls they managed to rescue tonight. Two others had warrants and were taken in, another two said they wanted to continue doing sex work.
RIGGIN: As you saw today, we got a little lucky. We got a couple of girls. Maybe, hopefully they'll stay clean and get out of the game. And so, it's good we'll be able to go home and say you actually helped someone.
PUPOVAC: Lots of nights are like this, small victories, almost buried by a sense that there's just so much left to be done. But the intelligence they gather helps support larger stings. In July, a national sweep, spearheaded by the FBI and fed by intelligence from task forces just like this one, led to the arrest of more than 100 suspected pimps and their associates. They rescued 105 young people that weekend.
Jessica Pupovac, NPR News.
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BLOCK: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.