Child-sex trafficking — it sounds like such a foreign problem.
Young girls from Asia, Eastern Europe are shipped around the world to serve in sexual slavery.
But child-sex trafficking is also an American problem.
It happens in this country and it even happens in its 38th largest city: Mesa.
According to the Diane Halle Center for Family Justice, it happened to "Mary," who grew up in Mesa. Her name has been withheld for her protection and privacy.
The Phoenix center, part of a program with the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, is comprised of a very small staff that works with area law enforcement and social-service organizations to help victims of violence and "provides free or reduced-fee legal representation, advice and support to victims of family violence, child abuse, sexual assault, sex-trafficking and other vulnerable populations that the private market would otherwise fail," according to its website.
"You don’t just see it in the East Valley, you don’t just see in the West Valley; you see it everywhere because that’s the nature of the beast," she added.
Mary’s parents were not together, her father had moved away, so Mary lived most of her life with her mother and two younger sisters. When Mary arrived at her early tens she began rebelling, hanging out with rough friends, sneaking out, and experimenting with drugs and alcohol.
It’s not that Mary’s mom didn’t care. Her plate was full. She had her two younger daughters and she worked full time. Eventually, Mary became too much, she was setting a bad example for her sisters, and went to live with her father.
Mary lived there until it also got turbulent and she proceeded to shuffle back and forth between parents for a while. Somewhere along the way, Mary just stopped going to both parents’ homes and began crashing with friends.
And that’s where the real trouble begins for a lot of cases like Mary’s. On the streets, once provided-for needs become matters of survival.
"I think the biggest misconception is that somehow these girls want to do this or enjoy doing this. I mean they do this when they have no other options. This is it," said sex-trafficking attorney Stephanie Preciado, who works at the Diane Halle Center.
According to the Diane Halle Center, citing the National Center on Missing and Exploited Children, most runaway children are approached by a pimp or drug dealer within their first 48 hours of life on the streets.
"They’re not welcome home, they have nowhere to go, then they meet these pimps," Preciado said. "These pimps are very suave."
The pimps groom their victims, waiting until their desperation peaks, and then they pounce with generous ways to make money.
When Mary, then 16, found herself alone and hungry, she agreed to give prostitution a try, going to work for local pimps. It was quick cash at first but the scenario turned quickly grim.
What she was not told is that her pimps would keep all her money and force her to take on more and more johns, keeping Mary dependent and isolated. Eventually, she was shipped out of state.
But as Carrie Simmons, a spokeswoman for the Diane Halle Center, said, this how most of the pimps treat most of their underage victims of sex trafficking, and it only gets worse.
Once totally isolated, the victims suffer more abuse at the hand of the aggressors, who often beat and/or rape them.
Preciado said it’s even common for pimps to get their victims pregnant to exert even more of a power grip.
"The relationship pattern follows the domestic violence relationship pattern. They are controlled by their pimps, they are beaten by their pimps," Simmons said. "They feel like they’re in love with the pimp even though the pimp is treating them in an abusive manner."
What the center and Preciado are finding, along with police, is that it’s tough to even compile statistics on the crime. Often, the girls are reluctant to get help because it has become their only way of survival and pimps use the stigma of it, along with taking the girls out of their elements, to keep their grips tight.
Out of around 70 cases Preciado works on, only two — including Mary’s — are from the East Valley. But Preciado said she believes there are more.
"I think Mesa is finally starting to realize this is a real problem in your city … We are now starting to partner with the Mesa Police Department," Preciado said.
Simmons points to U.S. Department of Justice reports that say up to 100,000 to 300,000 American girls are in sex-traffic situations.
Preciado said it’s still hard for victims to step forward.
It’s even more difficult for the victims to want to take legal recourse or testify against their assailants.
Victims feel both ashamed and fearful of the pimps. And for good reason, Preciado said. The first thing one will notice when approaching the door to the Diane Halle Center is a powerful combination lock on the front door. Preciado said pimps have even approached the lobby of the building to try to retrieve their victims.
Preciado would not allow the Tribune to take photos of her because she fears retribution.
She also said girls who go back to the life or are caught by the pimps can be severely physically or sexually abused or made to suffer sinister punishments like having their personal belongings burned and their families threatened.
Part of the reason the crime is coming more to the forefront is that police now treat child prostitutes as victims when they used to be treated as criminals. Vice squads of Valley police agencies refer several of the center’s clients.
Luckily for Mary, she was referred after one of her own johns turned out to be an undercover police officer.
"I definitely don’t think it’s a new crime; I just think we’re newly attuned to it. I think we’re becoming more victim-focused,” Preciado said. "We don’t want to see what we’ve all thought is a foreign problem, you know, ‘It’s not American girls, it’s third-world countries’ and so I just think now we’re going, ‘wow, this is really happening here.’"
Charlene Tsaipi, a sex-trafficking victim advocate at the Diane Halle Center, said resources are low and there are still cultural hurdles about the self-images of girls and young women.
"A lot of young girls think it’s OK to be treated like this, but it’s not," Tsaipi said.
Mary has since found secure housing and the center has helped her with legal and financial assistance. She is on her way to earning her high school diploma.
For information the Diane Halle Center visit http://www.law.asu.edu/dhc/TheDianeHalleCenterforFamilyJustice.aspx or contact the center at (602) 258-1602 or firstname.lastname@example.org
• Contact writer: (480) 898-5647 or email@example.com
Contact writer: (480) 898-5647 or firstname.lastname@example.org.