If there is a common thread between my own nearly 15-year ordeal as a trafficking victim and the state of sex trafficking and modern slavery today, it is an agonizing sense of missed opportunities.
As a young child here in Kentucky, my nightmare began when I was first auctioned off to a willing buyer and sexually abused. That scenario played out repeatedly in hotel rooms and private homes until I finally escaped at age 18 — far too late to prevent numerous mental and physical health problems.
During those years, many adults might have intervened, but didn't: doctors who failed to ask the right questions, friends and family who missed the signs, teachers who weren't informed enough to notice. But the trafficking and sexual abuse of a child is so hard to fathom that I can almost understand their inability to grasp what was happening. Almost.
But there was one inexcusable missed opportunity. At some point in my tweens or early teens, a concerned individual reported to Child Protective Services their suspicion that I was being abused. I was called to an office, interviewed by a caseworker, and that was it.
My primary memory of that experience is being coached and threatened by my trafficker, who told me I would be removed from my family and friends and locked in jail if I did not respond correctly to questions. I remember feeling terrified, guilty and nervous when I walked into the impersonal CPS office, spoke with a caseworker, and denied being abused.
In hindsight, I realize that the caseworker had inadequate training and experience with trafficking, and was incapable of picking up on any telltale cues I may have communicated. There was no follow-up from CPS. The failure of a system that exists to protect me resulted in my being sold and raped countless times in the following years. I still struggle with my personal experience.
At this stage of my recovery, however, I try to focus on the here and now, and on working to prevent human trafficking. Therefore, it is extremely frustrating — enraging, even — that the system is still failing young trafficking victims today.
In Kentucky, at least 101 victims of human trafficking have been identified, 44 of them children, according to a January 2013 fact sheet from Rescue and Restore, based in Louisville. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center's 2012 annual report documented 345 calls from Kentucky, with a majority of the cases dealing with sex trafficking.
Last August, the University of Kentucky Center on Drug and Alcohol Research Center on Trauma and Children released "Sex Trafficking of Minors in Kentucky," a survey of Kentucky professionals' awareness, knowledge and experiences working with youth victims of sex trafficking.
The report found, among other things, that no single agency is equipped to respond adequately to trafficking victims' needs, professionals who are likely to encounter at-risk youth and crime victims need specialized training, and Kentucky lacks a specialized, long-term shelter for youth exploited in commercial sex. At the national level, research shows that children in the child welfare system are actually the most vulnerable to falling prey to traffickers.
The U.S. State Department last week released its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which ranks countries based on whether and how well they are addressing modern slavery. The United States currently has the best possible Tier 1 status, which means we must comply with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and demonstrate "appreciable progress in combating trafficking."
What opportunities are we missing?
Certainly, we need to treat trafficking victims as victims and offer shelter and long-term support and services that will allow them to fully recover from their trauma. It is ironic that I received no support after escaping, though I eventually found assistance for post-traumatic stress disorder and then blindness — both of which were the direct result of being trafficked.
Too many trafficking victims do not receive emergency services like beds, medical care and the psychological services necessary to protect them from further vulnerability and victimization. Nationally, a Polaris Project survey found only 529 beds exclusively designated for human trafficking survivors, and 28 states don't have any at all.
All of this comes down to resources, and the U.S. government must invest more resources to ensure trafficking victims receive the emergency and long-term support they need and deserve to fully recover. President Barack Obama recently signed an omnibus budget that included a 41 percent increase in funding for Department of Health and Human Services victims services programs. While it's a positive step, it won't be enough.
I cannot abide the fact that thousands of children every year are so completely betrayed by society and a system that should be protecting, defending and uplifting them. I cannot abide anymore wrong questions or missed signs. We must learn to identify and seize upon our opportunities to recognize and support America's trafficked children.