Deeply buried in our society’s glittering bustle, one of the most sordid crimes against humanity continues every day almost unnoticed — the sale of young girls for sex.
Pope Francis warned earlier in the year that, “modern forms of slavery are far more widespread than previously imagined, even — to our scandal and shame — within the most prosperous of our societies.”
An estimated 40 million people around the world are enslaved today. Most are held against their will for cheap labor, but a substantial number are held against their will for sex.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline counted six thousand formal sex trafficking cases in the U.S. in 2017. One-third of the victims were minors.
Within that number, the most horrific plight of all may be the juvenile girls who are sold, some on the streets and others through the web.
Sex trafficking is “business” that seeks to remain deeply hidden. Victims are too young and inexperienced to understand what is happening and therefore are ill-equipped to find their way out.
But the grim reality is that even after escaping, “an underage girl who had been caught up in sex trafficking has a life expectancy of just seven years,” says Chuck Fernandez, who heads Catholic Charities for the Oakland diocese.
Fernandez points out that, “the problem is when law enforcement wants to remove from the streets a child being sex trafficked, there is no place for them.”
Catholic Charities is working to open Claire’s House [www.cceb.org/claires-house/], a safe house where girls, 12 to 17 years old, rescued from the sex trade could live in safety and rebuild their lives. The hope is to have a therapeutic living community: a safe environment of genuine love, hope, and healing.
While Claire’s House is in the Diocese of Oakland, all the dioceses in the Bay Area, including San Jose, Oakland, and San Francisco, have been working together to raise awareness. During the 2017 Super Bowl, for instance, they were out in forces in hotels and other venues near Levi Stadium to make staff and visitors aware of the signs of trafficking and what to do if suspected.
Claire’s House is the hope of Nancy O’Malley, the Alameda County District Attorney and a Catholic, who aggressively pursues sex traffickers.
She says there are only 42 beds in California where girls who are sex traffic victims can live safely and rebuild their lives.
One haven is in Southern California where Maryvale home of the St. Vincent de Paul Emergency Shelter Center in Rosemead provides refuge. Founded 162 years ago by the Daughters of Charity as an orphanage, nuns today continue to work at the center serving the needs of children coming out of damaging environments.
Earlier this year, four residents of Maryvale, two of whom had survived childhood sex trafficking, produced a seven-minute film titled “Trapped Within.” [Fostering Hope]
Trafficking of young girls is an extraordinarily difficult challenge from several perspectives. It is hidden yet widely accessible to “customers,” both online and on the streets, it is very lucrative for the operators and it is very alluring to the abusers.
The heart of the challenge to save girls from the trade is that they are too young to understand what is happening and how to escape.
As one worker in the Maryvale program explains “they are trying to turn their lives around” but they are very fearful. The pimps promise them so much; they have a very strong hold on them.”
Catholics are mobilizing to raise awareness as well.
The San Jose and Monterey dioceses joined forces in 2012 to fight sex and labor trafficking, setting up their Catholic Network to End Human Trafficking. [End Human Trafficking]
At the national level, the USCCB’s Amistad Movement offers training to people in immigrant communities in how to fight both labor and sex trafficking, seeking to build resources within the affected communities to fight the enslaving activities. [Anti Trafficking Program]
Finally, at the individual parish level, many are helping parishioners recognize the signs of trafficking by urging local businesses to post the warning signs of trafficking required by AB 1193 from last year. [Parish Foot Soldiers]
A PUBLICATION OF THE CALIFORNIA CATHOLIC CONFERENCE