Cleveland kidnap case points to a larger, hidden, problem

Jennifer Hemmingsen
Published: May 8 2013 | 1:27 pm - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 3:05 pm in
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This week's stunning escape of three women who were kidnapped and imprisoned for a decade in a tight-knit Cleveland neighborhood has many wondering what took so long.

How was alleged kidnapper Ariel  Castro able for so long to elude police? Why weren't the women able to escape years ago? Why didn’t neighbors or relatives suspect the three neighborhood girls were being held captive right under their noses? It seems too fantastic to be believed.

And that’s the answer, or one of the answers, to the question of how predators are able to trap and enslave victims like Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michele Knight, and untold numbers of missing girls. Most often these young, often poor, victims, are kidnapped, trafficked and forced into prostitution and other criminal activity.

Data is scarce – in fact, 2013 will be the first year the Federal Bureau of Investigation will collect and publish national trafficking statistics -- but it’s believed the United States is experiencing a dramatic increase in domestic child sex trafficking as criminal networks are finding it’s profitable, and relatively risk-free, to serially abuse young runaway or “throwaway” girls.

Even though all states but Wyoming now have anti-trafficking statutes on the books, prosecutions are rare. Law enforcement agencies may be poorly trained in identifying potential victims of trafficking. Even more ignorant are the neighbors and other members of the general public who, most often, are convinced that trafficking is a crime that only happens in other cities, other countries – anywhere but here. So they don’t connect the dots when they see suspicious behavior.

That’s what investigators found just a few years ago, working on Iowa’s first human trafficking case, involving a 13-year-old kidnap victim who was forced to work in prostitution. In that case, police came face-to-face with the victim while responding to a medical call involving another woman. Even though officers interviewed the young victim, she was too drugged and terrified to ask for help. Preoccupied and untrained in the warning signs of trafficking, police didn’t recognize she needed any.

In fact, dozens of people had contact with the victim in that case, but didn’t report any suspicions to police. Why would they have? After all, that sort of thing just doesn’t happen here.

But it does happen here. It happens in Cleveland, in Oakland, in Minneapolis, in Atlanta. It happens in towns whose names you’ve never heard of.

For more information about how to identify and report suspected victims of trafficking, visit http://www.state.gov/j/tip/index.htm

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