Missing Children Reports: Concerns and Recommendations from the Amara Legal Center
In the past couple of weeks, reports of a sharp increase in the numbers of missing children in the District of Columbia have garnered national attention. Although some of the information being shared online was false, the media storm did bring attention to a hidden issue in our community: the lack of public awareness about the real struggles homeless and housing-insecure youth face.
Introduction to the Amara Legal Center
The Amara Legal Center is an organization that provides free legal services to individuals whose rights have been violated while involved in commercial sex, whether that involvement was by choice, coercion or circumstance. The majority of our clients are young women and teen survivors of sex trafficking, meaning our clients experienced being sold for sex against their will. We work in DC, Maryland and Northern Virginia. The vast majority of our clients are either currently experiencing homelessness or are often on the brink of homelessness. Various studies tell us that homelessness makes a young person vulnerable to sexual exploitation, with one study finding that 36% of homeless youth surveyed had traded sex for something of value (https://wayback.archive-it.org/8654/20170321190756/https://www.acf.hhs.gov/blog/2016/05/trafficking-and-homeless-youth). The studies only echo the lived experiences of the clients of the Amara Legal Center, many of whom became victims of sex trafficking after becoming homeless. Our clients are brave and courageous survivors, many of whom escaped less than ideal family situations.
We at the Amara Legal Center have three concerns and three recommendations to share with our community in light of the increased media attention on reports of missing children.
Lack of Statistics on Human Trafficking in the District
It is important to note that a report of a missing child does not equal human trafficking. However, it is likely true that children living in the street economy are more vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking. In a recent Washington Post article, DC Metropolitan Police said that there is “no evidence that human trafficking is an issue in Washington, DC” (http://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/DCs-Missing-Teens-Whats-True-and-Whats-Not-417021633.html?_osource=SocialFlowTwt_DCBrand). Although we don’t know the size of the trafficking problem in DC, we do know that it exists. At the Amara Legal Center, we have listened to numerous client stories about their experiences of being trafficked for sex in and around the District and we’ve provided free legal services to them, while connecting them to vital social services. In 2017 alone, we’ve received 33 new client referrals. Furthermore, according to a detective in the DC MPD Youth Division, there were 60 reported cases of human trafficking of a minor in DC in 2016. According to the same detective, right now there are currently 23 open cases of human trafficking of minors in DC.
One reason the viral spread of inaccurate stories linking missing children and trafficking occurred is simply because accurate data on the scope of the problem in DC doesn’t exist. Thankfully, DC’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council has been tasked by the DC Council to gather and analyze statistics about trafficking in DC The Amara Legal Center wholeheartedly supports the CJCC’s efforts to track the size and scope of the issue.
Home is not always a Safe Place
Second, for some youth, home is not a safe place. Although some authorities have urged youth to stay home in an effort to protect themselves from becoming victims of trafficking, this may not be an option for kids who have suffered abuse in their own homes. According to a 2016 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, “46 percent of runaways and homeless youth report being having been physically abused, 38 percent report emotionally abused and 17 percent report being forced into unwanted sexual activity with a relative or member of their household.” (http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/homeless-and-runaway-youth.aspx) We have had multiple cases where our clients were forced into commercial sexual activity against their will by a parent, guardian or foster parent.
The Stigma of the “Runaway” Label
Finally, labeling kids as “runaways” masks the underlying issues. Most of our clients are survivors of trauma and the majority have had involvement with the criminal justice system. Activities such as missing school, running away from home or violating curfew rules often cause our clients to be labeled as children who are “difficult” or have “behavioral issues.” However, we have found that our clients engage in these behaviors in response to the trauma they have suffered. When society labels these teens as simply “runaways,” they are less likely to garner sympathy and vital social services.
Coordinated Community Response
We would like to applaud Mayor Muriel Bowser’s quick efforts to respond to the increased attention on missing children in the District. We are proud to have been asked to serve on the Missing Children Working Group, co-led by the Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants and the Child and Family Services Agency. (https://mayor.dc.gov/release/bowser-administration-announces-six-new-initiatives-address-missing-young-people-washington). Specifically in the area of human trafficking, Amara hopes that the District will take cues from models in other jurisdictions which coordinate efforts at a statewide level to both prevent human trafficking and provide survivors of human trafficking with vital services. The states of Ohio and Florida are notable examples of jurisdictions with a statewide coordinated response to human trafficking.
Increase Awareness among Teens and Parents
Misinformation about the nature of human trafficking in our area persists. In recent weeks, many parents and teens have been alarmed that kidnapping is on the rise in the District. In the nearly four years of Amara’s existence, we have only ever had one report of a trafficking case in which kidnapping was involved. The more likely scenario- and the one that both parents and teens should be aware of- is where a trafficker will present as a romantic partner. The vast majority of our clients were trafficked by an individual who they first considered to be a boyfriend. These relationships have then morphed into one of control and exploitation. It is crucial that we as a community start to have the hard conversations with our young people about abusive romantic relationships. Sexual exploitation is associated with a great deal of shame and embarrassment in our society. Teens need to have safe spaces to talk to trusted adults if they have been trafficked or are vulnerable to becoming trafficked.
Immediately Stop Criminalizing Survivors of Human Trafficking
Although it might sound intuitive that a victim of human trafficking should not be criminalized for activities they were forced to engage in, unfortunately many victims are charged with crimes while being trafficked. Roughly 90% of Amara’s clients have had some type of criminal justice system involvement. Specifically for minors, many are charged with status offenses such as running away, curfew violations, and truancy. These activities are markers that a child is in need of serious help, not that a child is a delinquent. We applaud the current efforts of Judge Mary Rook at DC Superior Court, as well as the previous efforts of Judge Hiram Puig-Lugo, in answering the community call to create a trauma-informed response to minor victims of human trafficking who are involved in the juvenile justice system.
Stacie Reimer, Esq., is the Executive Director of the Amara Legal Center, based in Washington, DC. Ms. Reimer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.