Exploitation of Runaways in America: Billion Dollar Business

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Last time I vacationed in Rosarito, Mexico I was struck by the sheer number of children pedaling gum and trivial trinkets, and hair braiding. These were little girls maybe 6 years old, their teeth rotten from drinking Coke, coaxed by an anxious mother visible at a short distance (smaller babes clutching her leg and perched on her hip) too devout to Catholicism to use contraception.

My heart did a double take, being both sympathetic and aghast at the same time over the state of poverty that drives native Mexican families to resort to taking their children to the streets to get a buck here and there, to feed an necessarily large family. It was clear this mother needed an income, and the combination of irresistible children and American tourists was their ticket to their next meal. The sight of such poverty left me retreating back to California, reluctant to ever subject myself to that heart wrenching setting again. North of the border I believed I could escape the reality of child exploitation.

Boy, was I wrong. In the U.S. the same thing happens, with millions of dollars a year going into the coffers of adults sending kids and teens out to pedal goods or sex.

The differences are many, however. There is no hopeful mother standing nearby. And the children do not rely on their smudged baby faces to close a deal on a pack of Doublemint.

No, our kids and teens are caught off guard by sophisticated, albeit abusive, commercially motivated gangsters exploiting the vulnerability of runaways and throwaways.

I’m not talking about smarmy uncles or incestuous fathers sexually abusing children in the family or neighborhood, or young female teachers abusing their authority to manipulate teen boys. Heaven knows that’s abominable, too. Those incidents get publicity in the media. And we voice a collective disdain for such abuse, insisting on punishing the wrong doers.

Here, I’m talking about a whole different animal: commercially driven predators who “employ” neglected or homeless kids. When you are approached by fast talking, well dressed youth who are selling perfume out of a car trunk, reciting a rehearsed pitch without skipping a beat, they may well be expertly groomed pawns for low life exploiters, anticipating a paycheck. Quickly their expectations turn into a nightmare because their “boss” becomes critical and demanding instead of nurturing.

These kids are expected to sell products with unreasonable quotas and low percentages of the split of profit (if any). Way too often the promises of shelter, food and earnings are withheld as punishment for poor performance. It’s not unusual for ring leaders to abandon the youngsters in unfamiliar towns just to be rid of low producers.

ABC investigated and reported about this scam a few years ago (excerpt below), but the problem has grown since then.

About 50,000 children nationwide are involved. They’re often underprivileged and underage. Make no mistake: These are not your neighbor’s kids selling something to support their soccer team or Girl Scout troop. These children are often poor, and they’re bused in to sell to you. The U.S. Department of Labor says it’s being exploited by greedy adults.

But the kids aren’t the ones at fault. Crooked adults called candy crew leaders run these candy rings. The two crew leaders I investigated both had criminal records. One man had been arrested for battery, possession of heroin and receiving stolen property. The other had spent two years in prison for firearms violations and also had convictions for cruelty to animals, drug dealing and shoplifting. Crew leaders recruit candy kids near schools, in public housing complexes — even homeless shelters. Parents go along with it because they don’t care or don’t know better.

The crew leaders tell the kids what to say and sometimes give them laminated identification cards to show customers. They pick the kids up by van early in the morning, and drop them off in malls or neighborhoods far from home. The van returns for the kids after they’ve worked a 12-hour day. Often the children go without food, water or a bathroom break during their shift. There’s no supervision and authorities are aware of cases in which candy kids were mugged or raped while working.

This chilling report yesterday in the Atlanta Journal-Constituion describes the origin of vulnerable kids. The article is aptly titled “Homeless Youth: A crisis we choose not to see.”

[These kids] sleep in abandoned houses, motels, on MARTA, under bridges, in our parks and on sidewalks.

They age out of foster care with no viable address. They are your neighbor’s kids. They are your children’s friends who visit your home often, especially during meal times. They could be your own children who are vulnerable to strangers simply because they are not receiving your attention, or their Internet use is not being monitored. They are unwanted pregnancies. They hold in dark secrets until they can’t take it anymore.

They stay under our radar. They may be teens in a homeless family, but unfortunately, they are not allowed in Atlanta’s family shelters. They are white, black and Latino and come from all socio-economic backgrounds. They are lonely, scared, mentally scarred and bullied. They are kidnapped. Many commit suicide. Some are murdered.

We have a great number of young girls sold into sex slavery, another crisis “under our radar”. It’s simply too egregious to acknowledge, primarily because often these neglected youth flee from middle-class or upper-class families where they are simply second fiddle to their parents’ careers.

The Huffington Post carried a recent article by John W. Whitehead, with a headline that, again, implies Americans choose to be oblivious to this horrific domestic problem, focusing instead on criticizing Central and South America for their shoving of minors to the U.S.

Titled America’s Dirty Little Secret, Whitehead’s article was published September 30. In it, Whitehead includes shocking details of this growing criminal epidemic, of which most of us are ignorant.

Consider this: every two minutes, a child is exploited in the sex industry. It is estimated that at least 100,000 children–girls and boys–are bought and sold for sex in the U.S. every year, with as many as 300,000 children in danger of being trafficked each year.

With such numbers, why don’t we hear more about this? Especially if, as Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children insists, “this is not a problem that only happens in New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco. This happens in smaller communities. The only way not to find this in any American city is simply not to look for it.”

Writing for the Herald-Tribune, reporter J. David McSwane has put together one of the most chilling and insightful investigative reports into sex trafficking in America. “The Stolen Ones” should be mandatory reading for every American, especially those who still believe it can’t happen in their communities or to their children.

I believe the first round of defense against predatory exploiters of youth is parents engaging meaningfully with their children throughout their lives. Know their friends, interact with their friends’ parents, meet with their teachers. Be present, not as overt watchdogs but as leaders and overseers (over see-er — not intruder or heckler, or police) whose motive is to guide without force. Don’t stop and smell the roses, stop and attend a water polo match. Stop and teach a domestic skill. Stop and go to Back to School Night. Stop and host parties, so your kids don’t sneak off to ones not supervised.

I may sound idealistic. But kids are naturally defensive of even dismal parents. For them to run away their home situation has to be unbearable. Too many parents feign motherli- and fatherliness while letting their young kids fend for themselves.

It is not uncommon for a mother to choose a lover over her kids. That is inexcusable–but it happens, and is the cause of many children being forced to live on the street. Fathers abandoning their sons and daughters because attentive parenting is inconvenient is outrageous. But that also happens way too often. America may not be sending its youth to a foreign country, but hundreds of thousands are “hidden in plain sight” where it is open season on them by unscrupulous, immoral headhunters running networks under the noses of most in our society.

Do what you can to curb this monstrous trend . . . starting at home.

T.M.B.

T.M.B.

by T.M. Burroughs

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