Big Events a Lure to Sex Traffickers

DETROIT, MI – The Super Bowl this weekend in Indianapolis will attract thousands of revelers, football fans and people who just like a big party. It will also lure human traffickers who will set up in hotels to offer paying clients the chance to have sex -- sometimes with children.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates 100 thousand kids in this country between the ages of 12 and 14 every year are drawn into a life of prostitution every year.

There is an outreach effort aimed at connecting with teens trapped in that life. Project SOAP is in Indianapolis this weekend. It conducted a similar operation before the North American International Auto Show last month in Detroit.

Just before the auto show, Volunteers like Jamie Freeman and Ana dropped by hotels with boxes filled with bars of soap. The wrappers have the phone number for the National Human Trafficking Hotline. The hotels were picked because they're located near clusters of sex-related businesses- strip clubs and adult bookstores.
Almost all the hotels offered hourly rates and sold condoms and sex aids. Some were clean. Some stank of garbage and urine.

"Hi there. How you doing tonight?"

The pitch starts softly - a request to hang a poster of missing children. Then the offer of free soap for their hotel rooms.

"You can put it in the rooms "
" You just said the magic word - free."

The hotel manager unlocks the security door to take the soap.

The pitch wraps up with a request that hotels train their staff to look out for signals that a child is being held captive by a trafficker.

" maybe a young girl coming in with a much older man, or lots of people coming in and out."

Project SOAP - it's an acronym for Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution - is the brainchild of Theresa Flores. Flores says she was blackmailed as a teenager living in Oakland County into two years of a life of forced sex with strangers. She says events with large crowds like the Detroit North American International Auto Show and the Super Bowl also attract sex traffickers - many of whom travel from event to event.

"This is their business and they feel like they're a businessman, an entrepreneur," Flores says. "And they're making a lot of money. The average pimp makes about a thousand dollars per night per girl -- tax-free, cash."

Flores says traffickers will roll into town in the days before a big event, find a place to stay, and start posting ads online offering women, girls, and sometimes boys - for sex.

Flores says she figured out that big events like the Detroit auto show, and the Super Bowl also offer an opportunity to connect with girls and women at what she calls "their lowest moments." She says a few minutes in the bathroom is often the only alone time for the victims. She hopes girls will take the soap and use the hotline number when the opportunity presents itself.

She says, in Detroit, at least one girl being trafficked during the auto show used the number to ask for help.

Michigan, like many states, is fighting human trafficking - that is people being coerced and forced into involuntary servitude. Sometimes it's being a servant, or forced labor, and often it's vulnerable girls and boy who are taken in and then forced to perform sex for money.

"It turns your stomach," says Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Schuette says that's why his office formed a unit to specifically prosecute traffickers.

"It's wrong in 21st Century Michigan and 21st Century America that should not be occurring."

Schuette's office filed two sets of charges last year under a state law that was updated in 2010 to impose harsher punishments for human trafficking. The National Association of Attorneys General is also trying to pressure online services like Backpage-dot-com to do more to block ads for sex with children.

But Lori Kitchen of the Michigan Women's Foundation says more still can be done. She says Michigan needs what's called a "safe harbor" law. It would protect girls who are being trafficked from being charged with prostitution and treat them, instead, as victims.

"We need counseling services," Kitchen says. "These girls are suffering from post-traumatic stress. There's a good chance they have some sort of drug addiction or substance abuse problem. They're suffering potentially from some favorable impression of their trafficker because that's the person that was caring for them. That's also the person who probably taught them that if they go to seek help they will probably be put into the criminal justice system."

Prosecutors are trying to craft a law for Michigan, but have been reluctant to give up their ability to file criminal charges.

Kitchen says the life expectancy for women who've worked as prostitutes is about 40 years old. She says girls and women who remain in continuously in "the life" typically live just seven years from when they start, succumbing to substance abuse, hard living, or a violent death.

Kitchen says that fits her definition of a victim.