A Pimp's Ad, Direct to Our Kids

It is hard enough to be a homeless young person, pulling yourself off the streets, without criminals luring you in the other direction, attempting to sexually exploit you in exchange for affordable rent.

Thankfully, one low-life who tried this has been caught advertising directly to Covenant House kids, urging them onto a dangerous and often deadly path.

Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan District Attorney, announced on Wednesday the indictment of Michael Lamb, 33, of Newark, NJ, for three counts of sex trafficking and one count of promoting prostitution. Court papers say he advertised online on Backpage.com and Craigslist, offering free rent to young women who were staying in shelters, specifically ours, and who "must be interested in the escort business."

The title of one of his ads read "Do you stay in shelter/Covenant house? want to move out moms?" One ad showed wads of $20 and $100 bills. The apartment offered was less than a mile from our transitional living program in the northern part of Newark, NJ. He allegedly worked in New York as well.

Lamb ran the ads from January 2013 through last month, according to court papers. He is accused of advertising young women on the websites for sex as well, and of using force to compel them to have sex for money, for his profit. He allegedly threatened young women who did not want to participate in his prostitution scheme with death, and threatened to expose personal information about them to their families and friends if they did not agree to work for him.

Mr. Vance said New York, where Lamb will be tried, is one of the only states in the nation that still requires proof of force, fraud or coercion, when trying to convict an alleged child sex trafficker.

"Kids and teens deserve unequivocal protection under the law, and I encourage state legislators to consider amendments to the penal code that reflect the importance of protecting young people from potential predators like this defendant, who allegedly recruited troubled teens from the very place they sought refuge and shelter," he said.

Mr. Vance said state anti-trafficking law needs to be changed to conform to Federal legislation. Currently prosecutors have to prove that force, fraud or coercion was used in the trafficking of a minor, which requires the minor to testify against the pimp. That is not required by Federal law, and can be problematic when Stockholm Syndrome has set in - when exploited young people develop emotional bonds with their traffickers. This legislative change will be a focus of many anti-trafficking advocates this year in Albany.

As providers of shelter, education, counseling, health care, and employment training for homeless and trafficked young people, we have known for decades that the kids we serve are vulnerable to exploitation. We have known that pimps and traffickers prey on young people who do not have a safe place to stay and lack parents or guardians who will search for them when they go missing and counsel them to avoid dangerous situations.

Two studies we completed recently with university researchers confirm the dangers our young people face. According to one report from our New York shelter with Fordham University and another with Loyola University from our New Orleans shelter, nearly a quarter of our young people who were interviewed have either been trafficked or have participated in survival sex, the exchange of sex for something of value, most often shelter. In New York, half the young people interviewed said they would not have been pushed to those actions if they had had a safe place to stay.

As Creighton Drury, executive director of Covenant House New York, put it: "Pimps and other traffickers make youth who are homeless their number one targets, believing that no one will care when they are exploited, lured in and forced to sell sex."

But we care. And we have never seen such blatant invitations directly to the kids we care for.

We are grateful to Mr. Vance for prosecuting this alleged criminal. It's not the first time he has pursued a noteworthy trafficking case. We hailed his work three years ago when he broke a trafficking ring, in which johns and livery car drivers were arrested as well as pimps. The father-son pimping team were sentenced to 3 to 9 years in prison. If convicted, Mr. Lamb faces 8 1/3-to-25 years in state prison.

Covenant House International Board Member Anne M. Milgram, former Attorney General of New Jersey, echoed our appreciation for Mr. Vance. "This case provides chilling insights into the way pimps operate. It shows how they seek out the most vulnerable young people to exploit, and how they resort to blackmail and threats of violence to get people to work for them. We must work hard as a society to reject the idea that it is acceptable to buy people for sex. Anyone who does so is potentially an accomplice to crimes like those Michael Lamb is accused of."