Today's guest blogger is John Ducoff, executive director of Covenant House Pennsylvania.
It's hard to hear about child sex trafficking. We want to turn away when we see a story about the predators who entrap kids and sell them. We skip the article, change the subject, and pretend it doesn't happen. We don't want to think this kind of evil exists in the world, let alone in our community.
But all across America, thousands of young people are victims of human trafficking. Just last year, 151 cases were reported in Pennsylvania alone. Next to drug dealing, it's the second largest criminal industry in the world.
We can't just turn away. We have to choose to see if it we're going to choose to stop it.
At Covenant House Pennsylvania we serve runaway and homeless youth, who are prime targets for traffickers. That's why we chair the Philadelphia Anti-Trafficking Coalition. We'll serve anywhere from 75 to 100 trafficking survivors this year, witnessing firsthand the devastating impact these brutal crimes have on young people.
A new documentary called I Am Jane Doe, which premiered February 10th, shines an antiseptic spotlight on websites like Backpage.com, the leading purveyor of online sex advertisements. As one of the experts in the documentary, I discuss the prevalence of trafficking with homeless youth and the legal arguments as related to Backpage.com.
This eye-opening documentary tells the story of children whose traffickers sold them on Backpage and their fight to protect other children from the same fate. To these children and their families, Backpage is not just a website hosting content created by others that is entitled to protection under federal law, it is instead a facilitator of – if not a co-conspirator in – the illegal selling of children for sex. For years, Backpage has successfully defended itself against legal action and refused to bend to public pressure.
Regardless about what's permissible, the question is, "What's right?" The question for Backpage.com is: "Do you protect kids from trafficking? Or do you profit from their suffering?" I encourage you to make the time to see I Am Jane Doe when it premieres on Netflix later this year. It is an exceptional and inspirational film that educates us and celebrates the breathtaking courage of these children, many like those we have served at Covenant House.
There is also much more to do to eradicate human trafficking.
In this country, popular culture often romanticizes the sale of sex by showing streetwise ladies of the night making informed, adult choices – what some call the "Pretty Woman" myth, based on the 1990 film. But the tragic reality is that many are instead children who fell into the clutches of evil. It's this mindset that underpins the law in Pennsylvania right now, which allows a trafficking survivor to be convicted of prostitution. That's right: a teenage girl sold for sex can be convicted of prostitution even though she isn't old enough to consent to have sex in the first place. It's both illogical and outrageous. We have to change the law to treat these kids like victims. And we need many more services and programs to help these young people overcome the trauma they've endured. There are not nearly enough, leaving many youth without the support they so desperately need.
The history of this country is one of ambition, striving to achieve our nation's foundational promise of freedom. Many of our greatest strides forward happened here in Philadelphia. From 1688, when the first written petition advocating for the abolition of slavery was drafted just a few blocks from where our program is located today in Germantown; to the Declaration of Independence in 1776; and to the Underground Railroad in the 1800s, Philadelphia has long led the fight for freedom, first from tyranny then from slavery. Today's slavery is human trafficking. Once again, the City of Brotherly Love is called to lead.