Message of the Day: Human Rights

Sex Trafficking in America, PBS Frontline, May 28, 2019


Updated: Tonight, Frontline, the distinguished PBS documentary series we have referred to often, is airing another of its outstanding programs, Sex Trafficking in America.

It’s do not miss watching

In many ways, this story is an iteration of both human trafficking and child sexual abuse online, the latter which we covered in our post on The End Of Civilization As We Knew It, Part Seven and updated on January 23 this year.

Frontline’s story is in many ways one of how the digital age has made sex trafficking exponentially worse. It’s also the story of tragic victims, courageous survivors, heroic law enforcement and dedicated treatment teams.

It’s also the third time in less than a year that Frontline has covered the issue of sexual abuse, previously from the institutional scandals at the UN to the US government scandals on reservations, showing how from globally to nationally to locally, institutions abuse and fail to protect.

Critical points are made in one of the articles below accompanying the program:

Although survivors come from a wide set of backgrounds, experts say they have one commonality: a vulnerability to exploit, according to Megan Cutter, associate director of the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

“Particularly with minors, often what we’re seeing is an adult trafficker who notices maybe someone has run away from home or doesn’t have a support system within their family and kind of becomes that for the victim,” she said.

In some cases, like Kat’s, that vulnerability is a simple as needing a ride. Others are much darker. In studying the problem of minor sex trafficking, researchers have found common elements like a history of childhood maltreatment, often sexual abuse.

“A lot of that has to do with the lessons that abused children learn. That if you’re sexually abused you’ve learned that your body doesn’t belong to you,” said Elizabethtown College professor Susan Mapp. “When that occurs within the trafficking relationship, it’s normal.”

The introduction to the program online reads:

It’s a crime that’s hidden in plain sight — and it’s growing. “Sex Trafficking in America” tells the stories of young women coerced into prostitution — and follows one police unit that’s committed to rooting out sexual exploitation.

The program speaks for itself and can be viewed on the Frontline site at Sex Trafficking in America.

There are also four must-read articles at the site connected to the program:

“Trying to Find a Way to Survive”: Why Some Minors Are Vulnerable to Sex Traffickers.

Stopping Underage Sex Trafficking in the Digital Age.

“Sex Trafficking in America” Filmmakers on How They Got the Story.

She Was Trafficked for Sex. Now, She’s Sharing Her Story.

Here they are.

“Trying to Find a Way to Survive”: Why Some Minors Are Vulnerable to Sex Traffickers

MAY 28, 2019, by CATHERINE TRAUTWEIN Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowship

Like so many other teenagers, Kat had been fighting with her parents. Frustrated, the teenager became determined to leave her home in Maricopa, Arizona, and head to nearby Phoenix. All she needed was a ride.

Kat had been chatting with people she met on social media. Soon, she connected with a man who offered her a ride. So one night in July 2016, Kat climbed out her bedroom window — leaving behind a note to her parents that said she’d be in touch soon.

Once Kat got in the car waiting outside, though, the man did not bring her to her destination; instead, he brought her into the nightmarish world of sex trafficking. Over the next week, she was forced to have sex for money until a stranger saw her and called 911.

When many Americans think of sex trafficking, they envision a problem on faraway shores. But FRONTLINE’s investigation Sex Trafficking in America reveals it is a concern much closer to home.

The full extent of the problem in the U.S. is largely unknown — traffickers operate underground and estimates vary widely. However, the National Human Trafficking hotline has dealt with more than 11,200 cases referencing minor sex trafficking between 2007 and 2018.

Although survivors come from a wide set of backgrounds, experts say they have one commonality: a vulnerability to exploit, according to Megan Cutter, associate director of the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

“Particularly with minors, often what we’re seeing is an adult trafficker who notices maybe someone has run away from home or doesn’t have a support system within their family and kind of becomes that for the victim,” she said.

In some cases, like Kat’s, that vulnerability is a simple as needing a ride. Others are much darker. In studying the problem of minor sex trafficking, researchers have found common elements like a history of childhood maltreatment, often sexual abuse.

“A lot of that has to do with the lessons that abused children learn. That if you’re sexually abused you’ve learned that your body doesn’t belong to you,” said Elizabethtown College professor Susan Mapp. “When that occurs within the trafficking relationship, it’s normal.”

Child maltreatment, which also includes neglect, doesn’t only normalize violence and emotional manipulation. It may be the reason that a young person is driven from the home to begin with.

“Most kids don’t run to the street. They’re running away from some harm,” said Georgia State University law professor and trafficking expert Jonathan Todres. “We see this also with LGBTQ status because sometimes, kids come out to their parent and they’re not accepted. That pushes them to the street where they’re then vulnerable to exploitation.”

Traffickers might start out just by offering a young person a place to stay, according to Mapp. In her book, “Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking,” a service provider described the outside of a homeless shelter as a “shark tank” — traffickers would loiter there, waiting for young people that the facility can’t take.

“Once you’re on the street — you don’t have a high school diploma, you might not even have an ID. Even if you could get a job, you couldn’t get a job that’s going to give you what you need to live,” Mapp said. “Trying to find a way to survive, they can be brought into trafficking.”

While experts noted there is no one composite picture of a trafficking survivor, they note that there is a particular risk for young people of color. Mapp says that non-white youth are more likely to grow up in neighborhoods with low resources, which could coincide with high crime rates and commercial sex activity.

However, when it comes to demographics, sex trafficking knows no limitations. “In terms of race, sex, and gender, it really doesn’t matter — people will sell what they think they can sell, just like any consumer market,” Mapp said.

At the highest level, experts say the issue of sex trafficking requires facing larger societal problems — including discrimination, bias and stigma — head-on.

“Trafficking involves people being bought and sold, and that only occurs when there’s a view that some people don’t count or they matter less,” Todres said.

“At some point we have to confront the underlying attitudes and behaviors that make some people more vulnerable to exploitation and that drive the demand for goods and services produced by exploited individuals.”

Stopping Underage Sex Trafficking in the Digital Age

MAY 28, 2019, by RAHIMA NASA Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Newmark Journalism School Fellowship

Snapchat, Kik, dating apps — whatever the latest technology craze, Christi Decouflé is constantly downloading and learning it. But it has little to do with any personal social media habits. For Decouflé, a detective at the Phoenix Police Department, it’s part of the job.

“Wherever the younger generation is, that’s where the predators go,” she said.

Sex Trafficking in America, a new film from FRONTLINE, follows Decouflé’s unit, which focuses on sex trafficking cases and child sexual exploitation. Since she began investigating sex trafficking cases in 2005, Decouflé has seen a shift toward traffickers using the internet as a marketing tool. So she and the rest of her colleagues — many of them women — have used the anonymity of the internet to launch a different type of undercover operation, one aimed at busting traffickers.

“Our investigations are constantly changing because we have to continually develop new undercover profiles and learn a new app constantly,” she said.

According to a report from Thorn, an advocacy organization that seeks to end child sex trafficking, online advertising for sex trafficking has been on the rise for the past 15 years. Before 2004, 38 percent of online trafficking survivors had been advertised online. Since that time, according to the survey, it had jumped to 75 percent.

The most frequently reported advertising platform in the Thorn study was Backpage. In 2017, a Senate investigation found that the sex marketplace site had knowingly facilitated the trafficking of minors by editing ads that might have indicated that a person was underage. Backpage was seized by U.S. law enforcement agencies in 2018.

Days after Backpage’s seizure, President Donald Trump signed a pair of bills, Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), into law. The bills — which cited Backpage, specifically — aimed to curb sex trafficking sites by creating an exception to an internet “safe harbor” rule. That rule, Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, provided protection to website publishers if third parties posted prostitution ads.

FOSTA-SESTA changed that. With the Section 230 exception now in place, websites are held liable for prostitution ads on their site. After FOSTA-SESTA’s passage, Craigslist took down its infamous personals sectionand a wave of other websites followed suit — shutting down completely or removing portions of their websites used to advertise sex.

Sex workers and civil rights groups like the ACLU quickly came out against the FOSTA-SESTA for what they believe is a threat to freedom of speech. They’ve also criticized the law for not differentiating between sex trafficking and consensual sex work, which advocates say disproportionately affects vulnerable groups by making it harder for them to safely screen clients.

But advocates for sex trafficking survivors hailed FOSTA-SESTA, and the subsequent removal of sites like Backpage, as a victory.

“We’re taking away one of the weapons these traffickers have,” said Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, director of Arizona State University’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research.

For investigators, FOSTA-SESTA has presented unique challenges. The splintering of hubs like Backpage means that traffickers have turned to social media platforms and dating sites, which aren’t explicitly designed to advertise sex. Now, much of the activity is done in one-to-one communications instead of out in the open. Detectives like Decouflé have had to work to keep up.

“It’s hard because a lot of the recruiting and advertising is happening on regular dating sites and places hard to monitor,” she said.

With the shuttering of sites notorious for advertising sex, investigators are also losing evidence sources and tools for tracking down traffickers.

“We were able to gather a lot of data that has enabled investigations and prosecutions to go forward, and now we’re hearing from law enforcement that those tools are now out of their hands,” said Jean Bruggeman, executive director of Freedom Network USA, a coalition of anti-trafficking organizations.

Critics of FOSTA-SESTA say that the laws are too vague. In a letter to the House Judiciary Committee, the Department of Justice called on lawmakers to amend the language of FOSTA to focus on traffickers specifically and not cases where “there is minimal federal interest,” such as when an individual is engaging in consensual sex work.

The letter also pointed out that language used in FOSTA may have unintended consequences in prosecuting sex traffickers by “creating additional elements that prosecutors must prove at trial” when the burden of proof is already high.

Traffickers won’t disappear because of FOSTA-SESTA, Bruggeman said, but will instead move offline or to the dark web. She believes that a better way to stop minor trafficking is to invest resources in making sure that youths with troubled backgrounds have more safe spaces to turn to.

“What the law fails to do is address that that crux of the problem, which is that these kids are running away from the systems that are supposed to be protecting them,” said Bruggeman. Polaris, an anti-human trafficking advocacy group, found that being involved in the child welfare system or being a runaway or homeless youth are among the top five risk factors for a minor to be trafficked.

For law enforcement like Decouflé, the jury is still out on FOSTA-SESTA. She agreed that the guidelines were too vague — though she felt that the laws were still a step in the right direction. It would still be a while before she could say how effective the laws are.

“There’s not a lot of specifics on what to charge them with or what the expectations are,” said Decoufle. “There’s going to have to be some test cases on how you actually prove that people running the site are benefitting from this content.”

“Sex Trafficking in America” Filmmakers on How They Got the Story

MAY 28, 2019, by PRIYANKA BOGHANI Digital Reporter & Producer

When she was 16 years old, Kat was abducted and trafficked by men she met online — all in her home state of Arizona.

“I didn’t even know what sex trafficking was before I was taken,” Kat says in the FRONTLINE documentary Sex Trafficking in America. “I didn’t know that I would end up in this situation that I ended up in.”

Jezza Neumann and Lauren Mucciolo — the director and producer behind the film — found that, like Kat, many people were unaware of the American woman and girls being sexually exploited within the U.S.

“Most people thought it was an international thing,” Neumann said.

To capture that hidden reality, Neumann and Mucciolo followed a police unit in Phoenix, Arizona, combatting child sexual exploitation over the course of two and a half years. They talked to FRONTLINE about how they found the story, and what impact they hope the documentary has.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What made you want to do a documentary about sex trafficking?

Neumann: My first film was China’s stolen children, which is about the trafficking of kids under the one-child policy. So it’s an area I’d dealt with in the past. I spoke to a friend, Professor Kevin Bales, who has written various books on modern-day slavery. I started chatting to Kevin and he said, “Have you thought about domestic sex trafficking in America.” And I’m like, “No, why?” And he said, “Well, most people don’t realize that a vast majority of women trafficked in America are American.”

At that point we thought, okay, there’s a film to be made here, because we’re always looking to make films where we can give voice to a vulnerable community, or where we can highlight an issue that seems to be misrepresented or misunderstood.

Mucciolo: This opportunity, to be a part of this film, really spoke to me because sexual violence against women is such an important issue that has really been underserved in our conversation, our dialogue in this country.

Over the course of making this film, the #MeToo movement happened and we’re suddenly starting to have more of a dialogue about the systemic violence against women in our country. The timing [of the film] couldn’t have been more perfect. I was really glad to have the opportunity to be able to give a voice to women who’ve been part of this experience during a moment in history where there are actually people listening, and more of a space for that point of view to be heard.

Why did you decide to focus on Phoenix?

Neumann: Like all films, you really need strong characters. It’s all well and good to find an interesting issue, but issues don’t make films. In this instance we needed detectives who were prepared to go on camera and let us into their world, and who were dynamic and could carry a film.

It just so happened that there was a talk happening in upstate New York. And so Lauren went and met Christi [Decouflé], who’s one of the detectives in the film. She said, “Oh my god, you should come to Phoenix.”

The women that you see in the film, they became the voice. They were impassioned about this issue. Films have layers. On the forefront, you have a film about trafficking, but what you also have is this film about these amazingly empowered women. You have it through the detectives, and the work they’re doing and the sacrifices they give. They’re moms as well, so they’re trying to be parents and do this job that’s all consuming. And then you have the prosecutor, she’s a woman in a really strong position. And then you have Kat and Marriah and the other survivors — these young women have been through horrific, horrific situations. But they’re coming out of it with strength and not letting it defeat them, and using it to better themselves where they can.

Mucciolo: They have an incredibly proactive agency, so they have the resources and the person-power to do not just cases where you’re reacting. They’re constantly trying to think of,

“What’s another way we can come at this issue? What’s different?” They’re analyzing what the traffickers are doing, they’re doing social media operations where they’re going undercover. Not a lot of other agencies have the resources to do that or, frankly, the innovation.

And the other special thing about Phoenix is they have an incredibly healthy working relationship with all of the service providers, and all the other players in this world, so with the government, the mayor’s office, the governor’s office, the attorney general’s office, with the faith-based community, churches throughout the community, advocates, citizens who are trying to do citizen-based work around this issue. All of those people talk to each other.

What we’ve found in other cities that we’ve been to is that law enforcement has a very bad reputation with the non-profit sector or the community sector. When we were starting to make this film four years ago, that was during the height of Black Lives Matter. So, to be able to find a unit that was incredibly good at working with the community, incredibly thoughtful about not just looking at the people they’re policing as suspects or people that don’t have a voice or perspective. This is a unit that talks to the people it sees on the ground, they’re not just making decisions for them. It’s a very different way of doing police work. When we traveled around the country, you got sort of bits and pieces, specks of light here and there. But in Phoenix, that level of integration with the community and sensitivity was something we hadn’t seen at that level anywhere else.

The women you met while filming who were survivors of trafficking. How did you get them to open up about the traumatic things they experienced?

Neumann: It’s a process of trust. If you meet anybody for the first time, they’re going to tell you so much about their life and they’ll withhold a lot. The more you get to know them, the more they’ll open up. It’s the same process with filmmaking for us. We don’t go into a place with cameras blazing, asking questions. We take time. We put the camera down. So, when we went to the Dream Center [which specializes in caring for survivors of sex trafficking], we just spent time there and everyone knew we were the journalists. We just hung out with them, we did a little bit of filming, we offered up the opportunity for them to talk to us. For us, what you do without the camera rolling is as important as what you do with the camera rolling.

The Dream Center is all women. They don’t allow men on that floor. The fact that we were ultimately given free access to spend time there was an amazing level of trust. Given the vulnerability of these young women and what they’ve been through, that was phenomenal. On one hand it’s fantastic, but on the other it’s a real responsibility. That brings the onus on us of how the film ends up, because we are still journalists so you’ve got to be unbiased, you’ve got to be honest to the whole world.

Mucciolo: To echo that, it’s time and trust, and empowerment and agency. Our ability to develop relationships with the people who ran the Dream Center — Konstance [Merideth] and Carla [Grace], the therapist — they were able to see that we didn’t come into those places and take stories away. We came in there and gave a platform for people to have a voice and to have agency and to have empowerment.

What was special about the Dream Center, and what was special about Carla was that she recognized that if we operate as gatekeepers to these girls, then we’re not giving them an opportunity to take back control of their lives, and that’s what was taken away from them when they were trafficked. One of the most important things that we can give these girls back through these support services is getting agency back, being empowered, getting your voice back, being able to be confident enough and strong enough to make choices for yourself and recognizing that you have choice.

When we were talking to Carla about the film, she really recognized that this film works best if people feel like they have control over how much they participate and what they share. And so really what the filmmaking exercise turned out to be for these girls was an opportunity to just have that catharsis and have that empowerment of saying, “I’m not going to be out of control of my life like I was with a trafficker. I’m going to be the author of my own story.”

What were some of the ethical decisions you faced while reporting on this topic?

Neumann: We had to be really sure with Kat that this was a good thing for her, to be a part of this film. This is going out on national television. She’s taking her story from her private space and telling the world. Are we doing the right thing? I fundamentally believe that every human being has the right to a voice. And that’s why I make so many films through the voices of children, both ones I’ve done with Lauren in America and other places in the world, because I think so often kids are heard but not listened to.

Just because you’ve been in a horrific situation like Kat shouldn’t mean that you shouldn’t have a voice. But our duty of care towards Kat was to [weigh] what would be the positive effects versus the detrimental effects? Because there’s always going to be somebody who’s negative about this film.

The reason she’s doing this story, absolutely, 100 percent, the only reason she’s doing this story is so that she could possibly help one girl.

What do you hope the audience takes away from watching this documentary?

Neumann: What I hope is that people will look at this film and think about it, and think about how they look at this issue and see if in their minds maybe they need to reframe this issue.

Mucciolo: Kind of on a more brass-tacks level, it would be great if other cities could look at this film and say, “Wow, we need to have a unit in our department that specializes in this. We need to not just have a reactive unit if we already have one, we need to have a proactive unit. Maybe we need to have more female detectives because clearly having that ability for women to relate to these women has its advantages.”

It would be great if one of the takeaways from this film was the court system’s impact on victims, because there’s a second level of trauma that happens that I think we’re going to see in this film. These girls go through something horrific, and then it’s not over when they’re recovered. They have their own process of healing to do, number one, but if they participate in a case, that process in and of itself can be very traumatizing, because it can take years.

For legislatures in other states to say, “Okay, maybe we need to take another look at our laws to make sure that our police force has as many tools and resources available to them to get these guys.” I think those kinds of more policy-level or practical-level impacts would be wonderful to help really make a change on this issue.

Could you share what it was like filming while the police unit set up busts like the one at the bus station or the ones in the hotel? Those moments come across as very tense.

Neumann: I nearly got tasered. Because [the arrest at the bus station] was a combo operation between our unit and also FAID [Fugitive Apprehension Investigative Detail], the armed response unit, and one of the members of FAID wasn’t actually at the briefings and so didn’t know about us. So when she saw me running, following the action, she actually pulled her taser out. And the sergeant had to shout, “No! He’s with us.” For me, having been in all sorts of different circumstances, working undercover and being interrogated by secret police, being in Gaza, I’ve had a taste of being on the edge.

It was about getting into the action without being in the line of fire. But for me, it’s totally, “Am I getting the shots?” You’re focusing on the trafficker being pulled out of the car, but then I also know I need to get shots of the guys with the guns. So the whole thing was over for me in milliseconds, because I didn’t think about anything else other than getting the shot.

Mucciolo: You’re just so focused on those things that all the bigger stuff becomes less scary than it otherwise would have been. Just being a part of that action is truly exhilarating, but you don’t have a chance to feel the fear and anxiety of being in the mix of something that could go terribly wrong very quickly, because you’re just trying to get the shot. And we do very, very strict risk assessments before we go into any of these situations, so we’re not going in just hoping and praying that we’re not going to get into any kind of danger. We are very responsible about it.

Neumann: Fear is a perception, so if you don’t perceive it, you’re not scared.

Mucciolo: But then the shoot is over and you step away and then you go, “Holy smokes, these guys had assault rifles!”

Neumann: But I think that was one thing that was amazing for us was that the access that the Phoenix unit gave us was just phenomenal. And just to have that trust, that they knew that we would do what we were told to do. That’s the rapport you build. We just spent a lot of time bringing them British candies and hanging out with them and going for a beer. We got to know them. They let us into their homes.

I hope it has that feeling, that you really feel you’re living their world, rather than just another kind of cops show you’re just watching action for the sake of action.

She Was Trafficked for Sex. Now, She’s Sharing Her Story.

MAY 28, 2019, by PATRICE TADDONIO Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist

For almost four years, Marriah dreaded her phone ringing.

“I remember putting my phone on airplane mode sometimes,” she says. “I would take the beating that came for that. I just couldn’t … I couldn’t do it again.”

Marriah is one of the sexual exploitation survivors featured in Sex Trafficking in America, a FRONTLINE documentary premiering May 28. Through the stories of young American women who have been coerced into prostitution and a police unit that’s fighting back, the film shows that sex trafficking isn’t just a problem in other countries — and that often, sexual exploitation is a crime that’s hidden in plain sight.

In the above scene, Marriah describes the power that her traffickers had over her.

“They mentally trap you way more than physically,” Marriah says as she braids the hair of another young woman at the Phoenix Dream Center in Arizona, which specializes in caring for survivors of sex trafficking. “Physically I could have gotten away if I wanted to, because I was out on the track and in the room by myself sometimes … but it’s like emotionally and mentally like they have you, like, in handcuffs.”

It all started with big promises: she would travel, be able to take care of her family, and she was assured she’d be kept safe.

“It’s like they pick the most insecure or … damaged in some kind of emotional way, like, female, and they take them and … fill up their head with — if you don’t know what love is — what you might perceive as love,” she says. “Then, once they get you that way, they flip the script.”

And when your trafficker tells you you’ll never amount to anything else, and that if you try to run away they’ll track you down, Marriah says you believe it.

“In that moment, like, it sounds believable … ‘Nobody will love you past this. Nobody will see past this.’” she says. “You just believe it, and then … you think and you hope that things will get better, and they never do. You’re just there and one day you wake up and it’s years later and you’re not even the same person.”

Ultimately, Marriah would escape the cycle. Her story sheds light on sex trafficking in America — a hidden reality that FRONTLINE explores in the film. For two-and-a-half years, director Jezza Neumann and producer Lauren Mucciolo followed a special police unit in Phoenix, Arizona, that’s taking a new approach to fighting sexual exploitation. The film team also chronicled the stories of sex trafficking survivors like Marriah.

The documentary is an eye-opening look at sexual exploitation — and the battle against it — in one American city.

Sex Trafficking in America premieres Tuesday, May 28, 2019 on PBS (check local listings),, and the PBS Video App.