When I launched a campaign to end child sex slavery in the USA, I didn't imagine this might be something that I would blog about on the Divorce pages of The Huffington Post. Sadly, when I filmed a young mother recently I realized that her child was a casualty of a particularly brutal divorce tale.
What is every divorced parent's worst nightmare? That something terrible happens when the child is with your former spouse. How bad could terrible be? Ask Phoebe, a women's advocate and trained social worker:
"You never think that there's a possibility that your ex-husband, the father of your child, could possibly be prostituting or doing child pornography with your daughter during visits...it never crosses your mind."
Phoebe's child is six-years-old.
Shocked by this story I talked to local law enforcement and learned that this case is not an anomaly. The age of children being forced into prostitution in this country is getting younger and younger. What was unusual here was the involvement of the child's father.
The biggest determinant for coercive prostitution in the United States is vulnerability. Pimps report, brag even, of their ability to identify potential victims. Many young girls are "boyfriended" into slavery. They are wined and dined and showered with gifts. Stables of young girls are referred to as "daddy day care" and it is a common practice for pimps to be called "daddy". Pimps offer the illusion of family and offer a place (albeit a violent and dangerous one) where vulnerable children feel they belong, at least enough to stay. One child I interviewed told me "my pimp became my Daddy".
In the vacuum of stable family life some children of divorce do become more vulnerable. Jamie described nearly a decade of watching in horror while her teenage daughter self-destructed as her marriage fell apart. She was "ravaged by heartache" as her daughter came under the control of a violent pimp and lived with him, working 22-hour days as his slave. She would occasionally see her daughter "with bright white hair, emaciated and wearing outrageously inappropriate clothing, condoms falling out of her pockets... it was like watching your child stand in front of a moving train."
Jamie's story has a happy ending, she gradually won her daughter back and they bonded over family rituals and songs: "We tried to connect to the part of her heart that loved us....there was barely a plan, just breath."
Phoebe's road is still unclear. As she started to see red flags her cries for help were ignored. When she noticed whip marks on her daughter's back and went to the police, she was in the process of divorcing her husband. The detective dismissed her complaints as the cries of a vindictive wife. It turns out they were not.
It was only after her six-year-old had been confirmed as a sexual assault victim with signs of internal physical abuse that she was even able to get a temporary restraining order against her husband. When I filmed her he was still free: hopefully not for much longer.
Of course this case is extreme, but we are living in a country where American men are paying to have sex with children as young as 6 and where child pornography is readily available on the Internet. This is big business. Up to 300,000 children are involved in the commercial sex industry in this country. They are American children: our children.
If we do not shout out and share stories like these how can we prevent six-year-olds from being prostituted? When a mother reports abuse and is told by those whose job it is to protect her and her child that she is simply "an angry and vindictive wife", then where are we? If anyone prostituted my child I would feel angry and vindictive. I commend Phoebe for having the courage and grace to share her story. Please take the time to hear her story and the stories of other survivors of child sex slavery in the USA.