Hidden in our own neighborhoods lies a horrific subculture that many of us turn our heads to and pretend we don’t see. We all have the ability to stand up for what is right. No longer should be sit in front of the television in astonishment to what is happening to our people…”Our America”. Now we know and we can’t pretend we don’t.
Our America with Lisa Ling brought sex trafficking to the forefront of conversations. Over 100,000 girls are trafficked for sex and most of them are between the ages of 12 and 14. Though we hear stories of sex trafficking occurring all over the world, this episode Lisa Ling focused on our nation’s capital. In fact she was only 6 blocks from the White House. It doesn’t get any more in your face than that.
When I attended the OYou! Conference in Atlanta, Lisa spoke about this very topic and called on us all to stand up and say something. In a culture that glorifies “pimping”, Lisa appealed to us to call a “pimp” what it is…a SLAVE OWNER. The room was quiet. She was right. These girls, typically held against their wills, never earned a dime. Like a slave, they receive what they needed to survive but they are considered property and even branded. Slavery is alive and thriving in our country and we are turning our heads to it. Pimps are always looking for younger girls…because they draw a higher price. They force them to be raped or they beat them. It is about controlling, facilitating and charging for young girls to be raped.
The episode actually began in the suburbs of Northern Maryland where we met 19 year-old Ashley who was living with a new family in foster care. She spent early childhood in a poor neighborhood in DC. After her mother died from cancer, she went to live with her grandmother and cousin. This is where the nightmare began. When she was only 10, her cousin forced her to have sex with men for money. “Closed legs don’t get fed” she would tell her. Ashley wasn’t her only girl and she wasn’t the youngest. Her cousin had girls as young as 8 years old. My heart breaks for all of these children. Ashley tried everything she could to get sent to jail and away from the men. She actually called the police herself. “When you locked up you get to eat. You don’t got to worry about nothing. There’s a bed to lay. There’s no men, it’s all girls. Like, I don’t care about no freedom. As long as I’m safe.” Five months before Our America showed up, Ashley was taken in by a family who heard there was a need for teens in foster care. Ashley was one of the lucky ones.
Lisa then took us inside Courtney’s House with Tina Frundt as we watched a counseling session with girls as young as 12. They were talking about being bought and sold in the streets of DC. Some of these girls were dealing with feelings of guilty, but Tina quickly pointed out that their only other choice was to be beaten. For a 10 or 13 year old girl, I don’t see how that could be considered choice. They were just children trying to make sense of it all. Sadly it appeared that Tina was the only one trying to rescue these children from sexual slavery. “A little girl who was eleven said are you an angel because I prayed every day an angel would come get me” she shared. Tina didn’t see herself as an angel…she just saw herself as someone who was helping children that nobody else helped.
Tina has her own story. At the age of 13 she met a man at the corner store who told her how beautiful she was and how he wanted to take care of her. Luring her in, he tried to become her best friend. One day when she had an argument with her mother, he told her to bring nothing and meet him in 15 minutes down the street. Before she knew it, he had taken her across the state line and she was being raped by two men while she cried. He told her she made him do it – since she was unappreciative for all he had done for her. Guilt set in quickly and it wasn’t until a year and a half later, during a raid that she got out by telling the police her real age.
Cameras were set up on buildings that peered down on the “main track” where the girls were being bought and sold each night. The street was often referred to as “the Blade or Track”. Streets where very young girls are sold like meat are coined “kiddie tracks or runways”. Under the cover of night, Tina, Lisa and a volunteer named Elizabeth headed down into the streets. Tina had combed through a book of missing girls before they began in hopes of spotting one or more girls. Unfortunately she didn’t get her wish. Their body guards stayed close but out of sight. Cameras covered the streets from the building and nearby cars. Despite having no power, the girls were also forced to obey the rule…if a pimp (sorry, I mean slave owner) walked down the street, the girls were required to step onto the actual street. They were not allowed to be on the sidewalk in the presence of a pimp. Men hired to watch the girls made their rounds on bicycles…making sure that the slaves were in line.
Many of the girls slept with 20 or more men a night. They were lawyers, teachers, pastors, police officers, diplomats, husbands…and even men with car seats in their cars. Unable to talk to anyone under the careful watch of pimps, Lisa, Tina and Elizabeth tried their best to look under the makeup and clothes to see if they could recognize anyone from the missing person’s book or try to see if any of the girls were clearly underage. However, the young girls are often out of sight and are sold from hotel rooms or private residences minimizing their exposure. Tina reflected back during her time she recalled witnessing a young 9 or 10 year old girl being tied to a bed post with a line of men waiting for her. I don’t understand this. How can someone stand in line to violate a girl as she is tied to a bed? Where is the morality? How are we letting this happen?
As they drew more attention on the street, Lisa Ling had her first conversation with a pimp. Thinking they were potential recruits, Lisa, Tina and Elizabeth were all approached. The script was all the same….wanting to take care of them…they were beautiful…they needed help and he was willing to help. Something tells me that if they had been younger, he may not have asked…he may have just taken.
Although it is a crime to pimp and prostitute, the person who usually pays the consequence is the girl. It is difficult to prosecute pimps and Johns when it requires the testimony of the girls who are afraid of them. Just like many battered women, their fear of retaliation holds them back.
Lisa and her crew had been searching all night for missing or young girls, but it wasn’t until 5AM that they came across a girl that was clearly too young to be on the street…best guess – 12 years old. As her pimp watched her from down the street, she struggled to walk in her high heels. Noticing the cameras, the pimp texted her and then pulled up for her to jump in his truck. Fumbling to get the tag number, Tina called into a friend and detective the information she had. However, the young girl was gone.
The show then introduced us to Andrea Powell who has devoted herself to the prevention of underage sex trafficking. Her organization, FairGirls (formerly FairFund), create survivor-informed programs that help to empower young girls to avoid and escape situations, like sexual exploitation. As we caught up with her she was working hard to track down a 16 year old girl who has been missing for weeks and she believed was being held against her will. She was referred to as “Daisy”. This wasn’t the first time Daisy had run away so the police weren’t moving very fast. Andrea wasn’t giving up – she was setting out find her on her own.
Watching Daisy’s social networking, she saw that someone had posted photos of her with 6 new tattoos. It was common practice for pimps to brand their girls like cattle. Daisy’s mom was worried; she had no idea where her daughter was. As a single mom trying to manage work, college and a teenage daughter, she didn’t know what to do.
While Andrea continued her search, Lisa popped into a local high school to talk to a group of high school girls. I was surprised to hear that so many of them had been approached by pimps with the same script. Although the girls tried to avoid them, the men continued to follow them. They were not only harassing them…they were stalking them. Pimps prey on the insecurities that young girls have and some girls fall into the trap of feeling loved, wanted, cared for and pretty.
Over three weeks into Andrea’s search she received a tip – an address where Daisy was being held. She immediately informed the police and waited. In the meantime, Lisa sat down with a pimp she had met when she was walking the track. Okay in fairness he said he was an EX pimp, but they did meet him on the street when he approached them. Sounds fishy to me!
He told them stories of living a normal life beyond the track hours. They cooked, went on family vacations, went to amusement parks, went to the beach. So this makes up for holding them as slaves? The girls didn’t get a cent, however they got caught up in the “glitter dome”- everything he gave them was shiny and exciting like cars, pretty clothes and nice things. Many of them, especially the young girls, were impressed and felt special. This was all part of the lure. He claimed he had at least 50 girls who worked for him 7 days a week making around $300 to $1500 a day per girl. Apparently that is the average price for one’s soul. When Lisa asked him if he believed all the girls were doing it voluntarily, he answered with a firm “no”. When she asked how to spot those girls, he told her to look for her pimp to be real close. He knew that young girls are gold mines but the penalty for trafficking them was high. Lisa mentioned the underage girls and he claimed that if he had any younger girls than 18, he didn’t know it. I wasn’t convinced.
Being that law enforcement was still being unresponsive to Andrea’s calls, when night came her and Lisa decided to drive the area surrounding the address in hopes of finding her on the street alone. Unfortunately she was nowhere to be seen and Andrea knew that there wasn’t anything she could do. She had to wait for law enforcement.
Like Andrea, the abuse on the street kept Tina up at night. She was working tirelessly to give the girls the one thing pimps can’t…a safe home. Studies show that close to 90% of the all women being sold on the street would leave if they had a safe place to go. That is 9 out of 10 women. With fewer than 10 safe houses like Courtney’s House in the country, Tina was determined to get it up and running. It would be the first in the DC area. However she needs an angel. Although she already has the home ready to go, she needs the money to open it and sustain it. It only takes $350,000 to be able to open the doors- a fraction of what will be made on the street. So I pray somehow this house gets up and running….providing a safe place where girls wouldn’t have to be worried about being raped.
The show wrapped highlighting Ashley and her new life. After catching up via home schooling, she prepared for her graduation day. She was headed to college to become a social worker, just like Tina. One girl at a time people….that is all it takes. As for Daisy, she is still missing and the young girl that was walking the street at 5am hasn’t been seen again. The only hope is that people like Tina and Andrea will continue to make a difference for these girls…and many more will join the fight.
The need to crack down, the need to stop the demand for these girls, the need for safe houses and more importantly the need for strangers to step up and care. Yes…each and every one of us needs to stand up and say “No more!” This is no battle for a child to have to fight alone. They are waiting for us to show up, silently hoping that we are their angels.
Two months after filming this special, Washing DC police conducted a massive operation that led to the arrest of 54 men for soliciting prostitutes and 4 men who tried to recruit female undercover officers. I have no doubt that this push was a result of OWN highlighting this serious problem. Once you know that the band aid is being removed and the world will see the wound, there is a stronger sense of urgency to be accountable and clean it up. Hopefully that urgency will remain. It is time to find some real solutions to a serious problem in “Our America”.
Soon I will be posting another article about this topic…filled with all of the things I wanted to say but knew would overwhelm this article. Check it out if you are interested!
Resources for Sex Trafficking can be found here.