WASHINGTON—An innocuous encounter with a polite young man at a local movie theater was the unknown beginning step toward being sex trafficked for a young Virginian teen.
Susan Young said her daughter had just celebrated her 15th birthday when she met a boy who was “close in age, polite, and well-mannered” while at the movies with friends.
They swapped phone numbers and Facebook information.
“With this seemingly small exchange of information, Courtney had no way of knowing that her life and the life of her family would change forever,” Young said during a recent Justice Department (DOJ) anti-trafficking event.
“The boy was not who he appeared to be. Rather than a sweet, innocent young man, he was an MS-13 gang member. His job was to recruit young girls under the false pretense of friendship, luring them into the dark world of human trafficking.”
That was seven years ago, and gang-related trafficking is getting worse, according to Bill Woolf, founder of Just Ask Trafficking Prevention.
“One of the most disturbing but rapidly emerging trends is that of gang-controlled sex trafficking,” Woolf said during a congressional hearing on Dec. 11, 2019.
“Gangs have learned that sex trafficking, particularly of minors, is a low-risk, high-yield criminal enterprise that adequately funds their gang operations throughout the United States and around the world.”
Woolf said gangs, “glorified through Hollywood,” often use violence or threats of violence to control their victims.
Young said that once the MS-13 gang members, who attended her daughter’s high school, found out Courtney was trying to break away from them, they took her to a secluded part of the school’s property and gang-raped her.
“They videotaped that, and told her if she ever told anyone what was happening, they would share the video on social media, and with her friends and family,” Young told The Epoch Times.
“And that episode right there is really what started her whole trafficking. Following that, she was immediately trafficked every day after school. She would tell me that she was staying after school for homework club or yoga club. In fact, the gang was taking her to a nearby house and trafficking her, where eight to 10 gentlemen were waiting. And she had to pretend as if nothing had happened.”
As Courtney was being sex-trafficked by the gang, Young said she found out later that her three younger children— two boys, aged 12 and 11, and a girl who was almost 3 at the time—were also victimized.
On Saturday afternoons, Young and her husband would go for a bike ride at a local park for an hour or so. Little did they know that their house was under constant surveillance and, as they walked out the front door, gang members would enter through the back door.
“The boys were threatened at gunpoint. They both were raped at gunpoint, to keep them silent. They even injected our youngest daughter with drugs. They really used the kids very much against each other to make sure no one talked to the parents, or anyone,” Young said.
The gang members would force Courtney out of the house with them by pointing a gun at her younger sister and saying, “Come with us, or we’re going to shoot your sister right now.”
Young said she and her husband didn’t find out that their sons and younger daughter were abused until a year after Courtney’s situation came to light, “because they were still too scared to speak up and afraid that the gang members were going to come back and get them,” she said.
Young, now the director for Just Ask’s Parent Coalition to End Human Trafficking, said her family fell through the cracks.
She said Courtney tried to seek help 22 times with her school resource officer and school counselor. “They didn’t get back to her once.”
“She did not feel safe to talk to my husband and I—at that time, the gang was threatening her, ‘If you do speak with anybody, we’ll kill your parents, we’ll hurt your little brothers, your sister,’” Young said.
“No one knew how to help our family or how to navigate this delicate situation. The failsafes established to protect families and their children did little to nothing for ours—from the school system to law enforcement, court systems, therapists, doctors.”
Courtney went missing twice over a six-month period—the first time for four days and the second time for two weeks, said Young. Both times, Young said they notified law enforcement and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).
“It wasn’t until she was recovered the second time by a law enforcement officer who was trained in the area of human trafficking that we began to fully understand the magnitude of our situation,” she said.
The family moved, and Courtney spent 4 1/2 years in inpatient residential therapy, trying to recover from the trauma, Young said.
“Oftentimes for victims, one of the hardest things for them to do is to reintegrate back into society. And we need to create programs that teach them to do so, how to live a normal life,” she said.
She said it can be daunting for survivors to carry out everyday tasks such as picking out a shirt or deciding what to eat.
“These traffickers have manipulated them and gained so much control over them that they actually lose the ability to think for themselves,” Young said.
Experts say the average lifespan for a child who is pulled into sex trafficking is seven years. Very few get out and even fewer stay out. Drug addiction and violence are par for the course and the trauma bond created by the trafficker can entice a victim back in, even after they’ve been rescued.
Foster Care, Homelessness, and Trafficking
The 2019 State Department trafficking report said children in the U.S. foster care system are at high risk of becoming trafficked.
“Recent reports have consistently indicated that a large number of victims of child sex trafficking were at one time in the foster care system,” the 2019 Trafficking In Persons report states.
In 2019, more than 437,000 children were in foster care, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Bill Bedrossian is the CEO of Covenant House in California, which provides residential programs and services to children and youth facing homelessness in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America.
He said that 30 percent to 50 percent of the human trafficking victims that Convenant House works with come from the foster care system, and that traffickers deliberately target foster kids.
“We see traffickers get young victims to try to victimize others through group homes, through foster care networks,” he said.
Bedrossian stressed that child sex trafficking is predominantly a domestic issue. He said 90 percent of the young women who have been trafficked that come through Covenant House are from the United States.
Another group of vulnerable children who are targeted by traffickers are the homeless, including runaways.
Of the more than 23,500 endangered runaways reported to NCMEC in 2019, 1 in 6 were likely victims of child sex trafficking.
Bedrossian cited a recent study directed by Convenant House that showed that 20 percent of young people who experience homelessness also experienced human trafficking.
“And so, by default, we’ve been doing victim services for human trafficking victims over the last 50 years,” Bedrossian said. “But in the last five to 10 years, the victimology has become much different. The sophistication of the traffickers has become much different. The insidiousness of the course of this has become much different.”
Young homeless people are “relatively easy” to lure from the streets with promises of love, protection, food, and financial security, the Covenant House website states.
“For a lot of these young people, they literally have begun being trafficked at 8, 9 years old by their family members, by the gangs, by the street life that they’ve been exposed to,” Bedrossian said.
Convictions and New Challenges
The DOJ convicted 501 sex traffickers in fiscal 2018, up from 471 in fiscal 2017. It took down Backpage.com in 2018, the largest internet site that advertised the sex trafficking of minors and adults. But other sites have since sprung up, including those hosted overseas, which presents an extra challenge for law enforcement.
The NCMEC CyberTipline received 1.1 million reports of child online sexual exploitation in 2014; in 2019, it received 16.9 million reports.
But the challenges with technology remain the most complex for law enforcement to contend with. Tech companies are providing users with more applications that have end-to-end encryption; cryptocurrency hides the money trail; and advertising sites are hosted overseas or on the dark web.
The DOJ has said end-to-end encryption without a backdoor for law enforcement stymies criminal investigations. Tech companies say a backdoor presents a security risk for users.
Victim Services and Moving Forward
While the Youngs slipped through the cracks years ago, more organizations have since sprung up to support survivors and their families.
The DOJ has also poured more funding into victim support services, which are becoming a more integral component of the law enforcement side of trafficking.
During fiscal 2018, the DOJ provided $31.2 million for 45 victim service providers—a significant increase from 18 providers receiving $16.2 million in fiscal 2017.
But, as Young said, gangs have also proliferated.
“It was really hard for us to find a safe place to go and kind of hide the family, so to speak, after our situation,” she said. She said they moved to an area that doesn’t have an MS-13 presence, to their knowledge. However, the surrounding areas do.
“We feel as safe as we can be from our situation,” she said. “We just try to stay in the shadows and not draw any attention to ourselves or to our family.”
Even now, she is learning more about what happened. Recently, she found out that her eldest son was also trafficked with Courtney.
“So he and Courtney, life will always be different for them, it will always move at a much slower pace. They will have to deal with complex PTSD and anxiety and depression—the fear that someone will always come back to get them or will be waiting for them—that will never leave them. I’m always looking for new therapies to try for PTSD and try to help them,” she said.
Courtney is now almost 24 and lives close by, while studying to be a veterinarian. The boys are 20 and 19; one is at college working toward a degree in cybersecurity and the other is about to start college. And the youngest daughter is nearly 12.
The traffickers haven’t faced justice.
Young wants people to understand that they shouldn’t wait until they know of a victim before they take notice of the problem.
“I really just want to empower the public, for them to understand and educate themselves that human trafficking is real. It’s happening every single day.”
NCMEC 24-hour Hotline: 1-800-843-5678
A 23-year-old woman who is taking legal action against an NHS gender clinic says she should have been challenged more by medical staff over her decision to transition to a male as a teenager.
A judge gave the go-ahead for a full hearing of the case against the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust.
Lawyers will argue children cannot give informed consent to treatment delaying puberty or helping them to transition.
The Tavistock said it always took a cautious approach to treatment.
Gender identity charity Mermaids said that people face a long wait for access to such services, that they can save lives and that very few people regret their decision.
The clinic based in Hampstead, north-west London, which runs the UK’s only gender-identity development service (GIDS), added that it welcomed an examination of the evidence in this contentious area.
Keira Bell is one of the claimants and will give evidence in the judicial review, which is likely to be heard in early summer.
The second claimant, known only as Mum A, is the mother of a 15-year-old girl with autism, who is awaiting treatment at the clinic.
Keira describes being a tomboy as a child. When asked how strongly she felt the need to change her gender identity, she replied that it gradually built up as she found out more about transitioning online.
Then as she went down the medical route, she said “one step led to another”.
She was referred to the Tavistock GIDS clinic at the age of 16. She said after three one-hour-long appointments she was prescribed puberty blockers, which delay the development of signs of puberty, like periods or facial hair.
She felt there wasn’t enough investigation or therapy before she reached that stage.
“I should have been challenged on the proposals or the claims that I was making for myself,” she said. “And I think that would have made a big difference as well. If I was just challenged on the things I was saying.”
What are puberty blockers?
They are drugs which can pause the development of things like breasts, periods, facial hair and voice breaking
They can be prescribed to children with gender dysphoria who feel their sex at birth doesn’t match up with their gender.
This is meant to give them more time to weigh up their options before they go through the physical changes of puberty.
Although puberty blockers are described by the NHS as reversible, GIDS acknowledges that their impact on brain development and psychological health is not fully known.
A year after starting the puberty-blockers she said she was prescribed the male hormone testosterone, which developed male characteristics like facial hair and a deep voice. Three years ago, she had an operation to remove her breasts.
“Initially I felt very relieved and happy about things, but I think as the years go on you start to feel less and less enthusiastic or even happy about things.
“You can continue and dig yourself deeper into this hole or you can choose to come out of it and have the weight lifted off your shoulders.”
She decided to stop taking cross-sex hormones last year and said she was now accepting of her sex as a female. But she was also angry about what had happened to her in the last decade.
“I was allowed to run with this idea that I had, almost like a fantasy, as a teenager…. and it has affected me in the long run as an adult.
“I’m very young. I’ve only just stepped into adulthood and I have to deal with this kind of burden or radical difference – in comparison to others at least.”
Keira’s lawyers will argue that children cannot weigh up the impact such a treatment might have on their future life, including for instance, on their fertility.
Former staff at the clinic have raised concerns that teenagers who want to transition to a different gender are being given puberty blockers without adequate assessment or psychological work.
It has been claimed that children as young as 12 have received the drugs, which block the hormones that lead to puberty-related changes like periods or facial hair.
But she also understands why teenagers arrive at the clinic deeply distressed and desperate to change their gender.
“I did say the same thing years ago when I went to the clinic. I would say it was saving me from suicidal ideation and depression in general and at the time I felt it relieved all those mental health issues I was feeling, alongside gender dysphoria.”
She described her family life as difficult. She also believes if she had felt more accepted by society as she was then, she might not have wanted to change her gender. She added that she wouldn’t have wanted to listen to voices of caution when she was younger.
“I feel I could say anything to my 16-year-old self and I might not necessarily listen at that time. And that’s the point of this case, when you are that young you don’t really want to listen.
“So I think it’s up to these institutions, like the Tavistock, to step in and make children reconsider what they are saying, because it is a life-altering path.”
Dr Polly Carmichael is the consultant clinical psychologist who runs the Gender Identity Development Service. She praised Keira for speaking out, but insisted the clinic did have a thorough assessment process.
She described their approach as cautious and said they work closely with children and their families to reach the right decisions for them, with fewer than half of those seen going onto take puberty blockers or cross-sex hormones.
“This is a really complex area with strong feelings on all sides. And at its centre, the young people we work with – they come to us in often really great distress around their sense of themselves.
“We’re talking about identity here, their identity, and a feeling that their gender identity does not match that body.”
She believes the judicial review, when it happens, will be an important opportunity to ensure the evidence around treatment and a child’s ability to consent is thoroughly examined.
“This is a heated debate at the moment. And I think taking a step back – and having an external considered review of the evidence and people’s feelings about the most appropriate way to support young people – can be nothing but beneficial at this point.”
Gender identity charity Mermaids provides support to trans and gender-diverse young people and their families.
Its chief executive, Susie Green, has defended the current process, which she said was based on years of research, and said she hoped the judicial review would “shine a light” on young people’s experiences.
She told BBC News that many people who approached the charity were “very distressed” and that research had suggested puberty blockers could help reduce rates of self-harm and suicide.
And she said it was “not proportionate” to take away services because of “a very small number” of people who regretted undergoing medical intervention.
“In the first instance the waiting time is well over two years and when young people get into the service there is then a process which takes well into a year before medical intervention is considered,” she told BBC News.
“The process is very detailed they get a lot of information about the benefits, the pitfalls and the projected outcomes of what comes of any kind of medication. So they make informed consent and that underpins the NHS.”
NHS England is an interested party in the legal case. It has already announced an independent review of its policies on the use of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones.
It describes this as part of a planned examination, which will be undertaken by a panel of independent experts.
By Alison Holt Social Affairs Correspondent, BBC News