A large amount of time was spent researching for this month’s issue theme of Human Trafficking. There was a plethora of information that I wasn’t aware of and I had many questions while sorting through it all. I was curious about the perspective of those who fight trafficking – and so I contacted both a law enforcement officer and a rescue organization founder. I was also interested in knowing how big of a role certain websites played, such as Craigslist and Backpage. And so, I set off for some answers. I spent time speaking with Fort Lauderdale Special Victims Unit Squad Detective, Brice Brittenum and the Founder and President of Children of The Night, Dr. Lois Lee, in addition to doing a little undercover research myself.
Detective Brittenum began our conversation by informing me that the problem of trafficking in our very own city of Fort Lauderdale was at a level higher than most were aware of. He also explained the distinct difference between trafficking and smuggling humans, which some people often confuse. “The most important thing is for people to understand the difference between human smuggling, which is the transportation of human beings over a border, and human trafficking, which relates directly to exploitation. For human trafficking to apply to a specific situation, there doesn’t actually have to be any movement of the person. People often think that since they may not live near a border, that there is no human trafficking taking place in their community. This is simply not the case,” he shared. In continuing on about working in Fort Lauderdale specifically, Brittenum explained how his task force focuses mainly on women under the age of 18. He described how many victims of trafficking are being recruited into prostitution from homeless shelters by other minors who are already working for pimps. These “recruiters” will bring their “recruits” to the pimps who then set up all arrangements from that point on. “It does happen more than people think. It happens in both the nice areas and the not so nice areas and it is very organized,” he tells. “When new girls are recruited, the pimps take them to have their hair styled, they buy them new clothes and makeup in an attempt to make them as attractive as possible. When they get a “new recruit” they know exactly what they are going to do to get her out there and working. Occasionally, they will give the young woman some money to keep her around, but they keep most of the money. The pimps use mostly coercion and fear and they prey on the naivety of a minor – many of them are too young to understand how they are being manipulated.”
Though Detective Brittenum described how many of the pimps in the Fort Lauderdale area advertise their prostitutes through “word of mouth”, I was curious how many actually use websites where ads could be placed. Many of you may remember the Craigslist killer from the News last year, and some of you may hear from time to time about the seedy ads being placed on Backpage and similar websites. In my search for some statistics and an actual number, I decided to peek my head into very unfamiliar territory – by placing a fake adult service ad on a website that shall remain nameless. Within twenty minutes I began to receive responses. I averaged between two and three men per hour looking for some type of sexual activity – in total, an average of 48-72. Responses, though, do not guarantee someone actually showing up in person. After three days, and horrified at what I saw, I took the ad down. Placing this ad exposed me to several things that I was completely naïve about. First, I saw how easily a minor could get trapped and enticed by an industry like this – if they are without shelter and food, they could potentially start making money within minutes of placing an ad. Second, I was shocked at how nonchalant those answering the ads were. Several ads included the gentleman’s work signature at the bottom of the email. For those of you unfamiliar with this, a signature includes the sender’s company name, address, telephone and email address. It seemed like there was no shame or even anonymity in the fact that they were attempting to solicit sex. Detective Brittenum shed some light on this area for me, stating: “Backpage in particular is still used by prostitutes of all ages. For someone to be charged with a crime of prostitution under the statute, there has to be a conversation made and an exchange of money. Trying to arrest prostitutes off of these websites can be very time consuming and you are also dedicating a large team. If you do arrest an adult, they are only charged with a misdemeanor. If there is a minor involved, the person receiving sex and the pimp (if there is one involved) are charged with a felony; under the federal statute, if a pimp or john is charged, even if it is their first offense, they will receive an immediate mandatory ten year sentence.”
Dr. Lois Lee, Founder and President of Children of The Night, a privately funded, non-profit children’s organization that helps rescue child prostitutes from the streets, has rescued many prostitutes that were advertised on both Craigslist and Backpage. She shares another point of view in regards to these websites: “I want to be really clear on the role of CraigsList and Backpage in relation to prostitution. In the early 1980’s, pimps advertised in underground Newspapers across the nation. In Hollywood, they lined up Tuesday mornings at 10:00 a.m. to place their ads. More sophisticated operations (such as the Russian Mafia) advertise in the Yellow Pages of our telephone books. In New York, some ads are on television although those may not be children. In Las Vegas, prostitution is advertised by hand bills distributed on the streets. Also, in the 1980’s pedophiles communicated with one another to exchange photos of nude children via the Los Angeles Times in the personal sections. I am confident this was true all over the United States. When the internet became popular, why would CraigsList, Backpage and other websites be immune from the criminal underground’s exploitation of technology?” she explained. “To blame CraigsList and Backpage for the invention of prostitution is about as silly as blaming Alexander Graham Bell for inventing the telephone. Prostitution proliferates under certain environmental conditions. In the 1980’s I did a study for the Hollywood Redevelopment Agency to address why prostitution existed on specific corners. What I found was that each area where the prostitutes worked on the streets had 4 characteristics: hot sheet motels (those that rent by the hour); fast food; pay phones and an area where a vehicle could pull off the road – to the side – or into the parking lot of fast food.” Dr. Lee continued on regarding how many encounters actually come from these website ads and law enforcements increased presence on the websites. “CraigsList and Backpage do not make it more difficult for law enforcement to arrest prostitutes. Undercover cops are specifically trained and skilled at permeating the criminal underground in order to solve crimes and arrest perpetrators of crime. The police run their own ads on CraigsList and Backpage – and customers now know this. The result for law enforcement when investigating prostitution advertised on CraigsList and Backpage has resulted in so much advertising for prostitution that prostitutes (real or undercover female officers) can wait all day for one customer to show up. Though many may respond to the ad, most of the calls are not much more than ‘dirty talk’. This has made investigations of internet advertising for prostitution expensive for law enforcement because when they rent hotel rooms the expense of that room may only account for one arrest per day, if any at all.”
Though I cannot share my entire interview with each party here because of size restraints, I do hope that this article gives readers who are unfamiliar with this side of trafficking a better understanding of several important factors. First, trafficking is happening everywhere – yes, even in your city. Second, minors are being aggressively recruited – many times in shelters, but also in middle schools that are located in good neighborhoods. And third, there are people who are working day and night to put an end to this atrocity – people like Detective Brittenum and Dr. Lois Lee. If the issue of Human Trafficking is new to you, but you feel the desire to become involved, there are many organizations across the United States that are in need of volunteers. For residents of South Florida, the Broward County Human Trafficking Coalition is a great place to start.
To learn more about other organizations, look for the organization spread in this issue or visit Dr. Lee’s website: www.childrenofthenight.org