Just imagine, as horrible as the thoughts may be, that you are a terrified 13-year-old girl, perhaps a runaway from a rough home environment, and youve been taken in by an older man who promises to treat you better. When the sexual activity begins, you dont really understand it. But after a while, what you do understand is the threats that have now become part of your daily life: Do what I say or I will beat you. Do what this man visiting tells you to do. Go with this other girl to a strange house with strange men.
The nightmare is more common than we think, one reason that the N.C. General Assembly passed a law that toughens the penalties for sex traffickers and views the young people in their control as victims instead of treating them as prostitutes.
The top federal prosecutor in North Carolinas Western District, Anne Tompkins, didnt hold back in an interview with The News & Observers Anne Blythe. Human trafficking, she said, is a national epidemic, and it is also happening here, in our communities, with many of the victims and perpetrators hiding in plain sight.
Exploiting young girls
Indeed, a case cited by prosecutors involved a man in his mid-30s, appearing outwardly fairly typical. But he was anything but, exploiting young girls. Now he faces multiple counts of sex crime charges. If convicted, he wont see daylight without confinement for a long, long time if ever.
A problem in working these cases was that youngsters who wind up in these situations are often running away from something at home, perhaps even tensions that arent that extraordinary. So they arent inclined to speak out much. And the traffickers get away with their business, at least for a while, because they dont appear to be that different from anyone else.
What can people do? They can keep an eye out for suspicious situations, older men hanging around with younger girls. They can watch to see whether kids are hanging around on their own or not going to school. They can pay attention to comings and goings and the hours they see the young people around. They cannot hesitate to alert authorities.
Young people are vulnerable because their emotions can grow raw and lead them to be drawn to situations and people theyd be better off without. But whereas an adult would perceive danger, a teenager might not see it. And once in an exploitative situation, it is hard for someone 13 or 14 years old to know how to get out.
Richly earned sentences
That the law is now firmly on their side is a tremendous development. Now such youngsters need not fear going from a prison of one kind to another, and they should not.
Its also a positive development to toughen penalties on traffickers, who have committed despicable and exploitative crimes, crimes theyd be likely to repeat if somehow they escaped the long prison terms they have so richly earned.
State and federal officials are hardly asleep when it comes to these crimes, but clearly outreach must be intensified and awareness raised. Young people who are vulnerable need to be aware that they can turn to authorities without fear and get the help they need. Parents of troubled kids also need to be on the lookout for signs that their children, even if they are somewhat estranged from them, could be falling into dangerous situations.
At least authorities now are highly attuned to the needs of such victims, the signs of trouble and the degree to which sex trafficking is a problem and its a problem everywhere. That knowledge, that awareness, can only help as the traffickers are pursued, put out of business and put into prison.