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Lezlie Sterling/Sacramento Bee/MCT/Newscom

Shame of the cities

Trafficking | Tens of thousands of young girls are being forced into prostitution in the United States; activist Linda Smith wants to know what Americans-and Christians-are prepared to do about it

Issue: "New breed of homeless," Feb. 28, 2009

VANCOUVER, Wash.-The headquarters of Shared Hope International is humble, occupying a rickety storefront on a side street in Vancouver, Wash. The organization's staff is small, about 17. But the cause of this decade-old nonprofit is grand-and the impact of its efforts immeasurable.

At 12 years old, Tanya was not unlike millions of other American girls-pretty, intelligent, ambitious. But on her walk to school one day, a seemingly chance encounter with an older boy would lead to a hellish lifestyle of beatings and sexual slavery.

It began innocuously enough, a compliment here, a car ride there. Before long, the pair was a couple. Then everything changed-power plays, manipulation, physical abuse. Tanya was too young to resist and too emotionally attached to leave: "When I realized that my boyfriend was a pimp, I thought, well, I guess that's just the way it is, and I did what he told me."

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Over the next four years, Tanya's pimp prostituted her to more than 100 men per month. On 17 occasions, the criminal justice system had opportunity to intervene, but each time, police arrested Tanya as a criminal rather than caring for her as a victim. She was labeled a "child prostitute" and spent many nights in jails or group homes for recovering drug addicts. She began to believe she must be the criminal, given that the pimps and "johns" weren't doing any jail time.

It took an uncommon law enforcement officer to break the arrest cycle, connecting Tanya with the Wake Up Youth program in Toledo, Ohio, a partner organization of Shared Hope International (SHI). Wake Up Youth director and founder EleSondra DeRomano, herself a past victim of domestic child sex trafficking, walked Tanya out of dehumanization and back to personhood. "I had a torn-soul to torn-soul relationship with her," Tanya recalls in an online account of her ordeal.

Tragically, Tanya's story is far from rare. Between 100,000 and 300,000 U.S. children are enslaved in sex trafficking each year, according to Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. What's worse, only a small fraction of those ever find the support needed to get out. Among prostitutes nationwide, the Justice Department pins the average age for entering the sex industry at 12 to 14 years old.

SHI founder and director Linda Smith clenches her jaw with quiet rage when she quotes such statistics. The former U.S. congresswoman has spent the past decade banging her head against an ever-frustrating reality: Too many girls fall victim to sex trafficking for rescue groups ever to keep up.

The solution, Smith has determined, is not that organizations redouble their fundraising initiatives, hire more staff, or work longer hours to reach more victims. The solution, she says, is to dry up demand: "If there weren't demand, there wouldn't be the child sold. If a few men were hung like crows over the corn, if men thought their life would be dead if they bought children, you better know some of them would stop buying."

Smith's tough talk flows from the litany of heart-breaking stories that invade her life daily. She has seen what trafficking does to girls and witnessed the dark souls of the men whose lust sponsors the industry. The first story invaded her life on a trip to Bombay, India, in 1998, while she was serving in Congress. Traveling along the Falkland Road, site for some of the world's filthiest and most frequented brothels, Smith locked eyes with a 13-year-old girl and heard the voice of God: "It was as if God whispered in my ear, 'Touch her for Me.'"

Smith placed a kind hand on the child's shoulder, and she immediately slumped into Smith's arms. That salient moment birthed the vision for SHI and a career shift away from politics (see sidebar).

Smith has since traveled around the globe in an effort to expose international sex tourism and trafficking. More recently, she has turned her focus stateside and discovered the problem is no less disturbing.

SHI has spent the past two years sending undercover agents into the teeth of the U.S. industry, collecting data primarily on just who is purchasing children for sex. "The buyer is pretty typical. He's an American man from every spectrum," Smith said. "If you have 100,000 children being used around 10 times a night, seven days a week, look at the number of men. We don't have that many typical pedophiles. These are men who have evolved from seeing younger and younger porn."

The ready availability of internet pornography majoring in the exploitation of teenage girls has greatly fueled stateside demand over the past decade. Smith hopes to link pornography to sex trafficking in the minds of all men as a deterrent against beginning down a dangerous path. With input from Focus on the Family, SHI crafted The Defenders USA, an initiative challenging men not only to resist their personal temptations but actively to seek the downfall of the entire commercial sex industry.

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