As I looked around the South Auditorium in the Old Executive Office Building during the White House's Forum to Combat Human Trafficking, I felt a surge of hope in a field that could use so much more. Members of the Obama administration joined with many of the nation's leading abolitionists to take stock of the nation's effort to end the scourge of human trafficking and share information to bolster the fight yet ahead of us.
Too often, those of us who fight against human slavery beat our heads against the walls of misinformation and prejudice.
No, we have to explain, trafficking victims aren't just those vulnerable people who are smuggled in from other countries so their labor and bodies can be exploited -- 80 percent of sex trafficking victims are U.S. citizens, mostly homeless, abused, and impoverished young people who see no other options.
No, jailing underage prostituted children and teenagers doesn't solve the problem of sexual exploitation; it's the johns, gangs, cartels and pimps who buy them and sell them who need to be identified, punished, jailed, fined, and, if they use the bodies of minors, placed on sex offender lists.
And no, not every person whose body is bought and sold is in that position voluntarily - while some adults do choose that work, the vast majority of prostituted people would escape if they had a safe route out and a chance at a better future. Most kids who are sold start in their very early teens, and we don't know any 14-year-olds who wake up one morning and decide to be raped ten or more times a day.
At the White House Forum, the administration followed up on President Barack Obama's speech in September to the Clinton Global Initiative. Attorney General Eric Holder, senior White House advisor Valerie Jarrett and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano emphasized the importance of preventing human trafficking, prosecuting traffickers, protecting survivors and providing them with social services. The key theme was partnership -- linking together in an unprecedented way the technology innovations of Silicon Valley with the investigative and prosecutorial resources of the government and the grassroots credibility and expertise of the service and advocacy communities.
We heard how the Polaris Project, Thorn, Twilio and Salesforce.com have created a new platform for identifying and aiding trafficking victims. A new texting program allows victims to send a text seeking help to an easy-to-remember number, BeFree (233733) without causing suspicion. I am encouraged by Google's generosity on the topic, as it recently pledged $3 million to entrepreneurial nonprofits using technology to fight traffickers.
One significant way we can fight sex trafficking is to provide safe shelter to vulnerable young people. At Covenant House, where we offer shelter, counseling and services to homeless and trafficked young people across 6 countries, we see far too many trafficking victims among the 61,000 youth we reach each year. Many of them, including the two involved in the Toronto police's first-ever human trafficking prosecution last month, tell us they were prisoners without options, fearing for their lives, and without a safe place to go.
The fight to end human trafficking is gaining traction as awareness builds across the country. If we could make it even half as taboo to buy and sell kids for sex as it is to buy and smoke cigarettes, we would make huge inroads against human trafficking and child sexual exploitation.
I applaud the passage of the federal Violence Against Women Act, which included the extension of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act through FY 2017. On the state level, we see an increasing number of smart new laws and initiatives:
*In the last several months, Attorneys General in Michigan and New Jersey have launched task forces on human trafficking, joining 21 other states in creating oversight groups charged to strengthen state efforts to prevent trafficking and aid victims.
*In the last two years alone, there have been six human trafficking convictions in Michigan under the new Attorney General, and more are expected as resources are deployed to attack the problem.
*In November's election, California residents passed Proposition 35, which increased the maximum sentence for convicted traffickers to life in prison, and raised maximum fines to $1.5 million.
*In 2011, Utah amended its criminal code to require people convicted of aggravated human trafficking to register as sex offenders.
*New York recently allowed victims of sex trafficking to request that their sentences be vacated and their records cleared, so they can more easily find future employment.
On the local level, a 2010 law passed in the District of Columbia allows for victims of sex trafficking to be included in the Victims of Violent Crime Compensation Act, and to sue their traffickers. And in Chicago the police now post on their website pictures of those who have been arrested for solicitation or related crimes.
And last year in New York City, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. prosecuted not just the pimps and johns involved in a trafficking ring, but their livery car drivers as well, who helped arrange transactions involving the women and drove them from tryst to tryst.
But our work is far from over, as these are local efforts that need to be universalized. To date only 11 states have passed Safe Harbor laws, to offer young trafficking victims help instead of handcuffs, to set them up with safe shelter, job training, and an education, rather than put them behind bars. More states are considering such laws, but if yours still locks up prostituted kids for being sold -- for being victims of statutory rape -- you need to join this battle and demand fairer treatment.
I am heartened to work with a President who understands that all parts of our society -- the government, faith based groups, non-profits, schools, and private citizens -- need to work hard to raise awareness about human trafficking and stop it dead in its tracks. Now, 150 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, children should not be for sale. The fact that 100,000 of them were last year in the United States, according to FBI estimates, should do more than grieve us. It must mobilize us.