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This op-ed was written by Stephanie Lundquist-Arora, IWN member and chapter leader in Virginia. Originally appeared on Washington Examiner.
At last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, Latisha’s House Foundation founder and CEO Elizabeth Ameling explained to the “Combating Human Trafficking” panel’s audience that the average age of those first trafficked is 12 years old — at which point, they are assaulted multiple times a day. The vast majority of the victims, an estimated 96% and upward according to Ameling, were sexually abused beforehand, making them more vulnerable to traffickers.
Tanya Gould, the director of anti-human trafficking for Virginia’s Office of the Attorney General and a survivor of human trafficking, emphasized that human trafficking is not a faraway problem in a different land. Rather, she said emphatically during the conference, “This is happening here in America.”
In a polarized world where Republicans and Democrats agree on very little, we can come together on the fact that the sex trafficking of young children inside our country is a problem that deserves attention and action. Dave Yost, the attorney general of Ohio, joined Gould and Ameling on the conference panel. He made an assertion that I hope all voters hold true: “We don’t throw away human beings in America.”
Yost has worked to address the colossal problem in Ohio with “Operation Buyer’s Remorse,” in which the state strictly enforces laws against buying sex in order to stem the demand. He emphasized to conference attendees that there is no market for human trafficking without buyers. With Operation Buyer’s Remorse, his goal is to force them out of Ohio.
Yost also argued that the porous southern border is exacerbating the human trafficking problem in our country. Unaccompanied minors who have crossed the southern border, for example, have been found working on farms in Ohio, he said.
It’s also important to draw attention to Big Tech’s role in facilitating human trafficking networks and transactions. Earlier this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled executives over Big Tech’s part in exploiting children. And multiple state attorneys general, including Virginia’s Jason Miyares and Ohio’s Yost, are pursuing legal action regarding social media’s impact on children’s mental health.
But according to the CPAC panel’s experts, more legislative work is needed to combat human trafficking. And bipartisan endeavors are much more likely to yield successful results. In particular, Gould mentioned that creating and maintaining an accurate human trafficking database is an important next step for Virginia. Accurate data collection and maintenance would help with identifying trends and guiding state policy.
Virginia also needs to follow Yost’s example and strictly enforce laws against buying sex to stifle demand. Not only did Ohio’s Operation Buyer’s Remorse send a signal to those trying to purchase sex, but it also led to the rescue of more than 100 human trafficking survivors.
By the time these and other survivors of human trafficking are rescued, Ameling explained they almost always have a criminal record preventing them from acquiring jobs in many domains. Theft, drug possession, and identity fraud are among the crimes listed on their rap sheets, often before they are even 18 years old.
In some cases, Ameling explained, people trafficked when they were very young, without much in terms of education or skill, continue the line of work as they become adults. When survivors are rescued, “prostitution” ironically often appears among their other misdeeds. To facilitate the rehabilitation of trafficking survivors, legislators should consider methods and conditions for the expungement of criminal records so that survivors have a chance to move on and pursue training and careers of their choice.
At places such as Latisha’s House Foundation, survivors are clear about what they need to survive and thrive. They are not voiceless. As Yost put it, “Survivors have a voice. It’s time for us to listen.”