Often thought of as a crisis in developing nations and former Iron Curtain states, the sex trafficking of children is, in fact, a booming underground industry in the U.S.
Each day, according to the FBI, young American girls—just 13 years old on average—are trafficked into prostitution.
A study by the University of Pennsylvania has found that approximately 300,000 girls in the U.S. are at risk of sexual exploitation annually.
For victims who seek help after years of forced prostitution and abuse, there is often nowhere to turn.
Susan Munsey is an answer to their prayers.
A few years ago, Munsey learned that her pleasant and sunny hometown of San Diego was hiding a dark side: the sleepy beach city is also an international sex trafficking hub with high rates of child prostitution.
The problem extends beyond the girls being trafficked. If they escape to find a better life, there are few long-term treatment options in the U.S. And none were available in San Diego, Munsey discovered.
She addressed that void with Generate Hope, an organization that provides a long-term recovery program for young women who have been trafficked, prostituted, or otherwise sexually exploited.
Susan Munsey has a home for these young girls in La Mesa, California, just east of San Diego. The home is a safe and loving place where she and her yellow lab also live. The girls earn their high school diplomas at a nearby learning center, and participate in recovery classes focusing on post-traumatic stress disorder, self-esteem and anxiety.
Since the home was opened in March 2010, seven girls have lived there. One of the girls, Munsey says, “was passed through the hands of three different traffickers and each one got worse.” The girl would work 72 hours straight. “At one point, which is when she got away,” Munsey says, “she was forced to work with two black eyes.”
Another girl who sought Munsey’s help had a typical childhood, but was enticed away from a bus stop. Girls are often lured away by traffickers. Other times, Munsey says, “they’re recruited by another girl that has become indebted or endeared by the trafficker.”
Ninety percent of trafficking in the U.S. involves girls and young women who have been snared within our borders, but one of the girls living at the La Mesa house was trafficked from Mexico.
Seventy to 90 percent of trafficked girls have a history of abuse. Runaways, foster kids and homeless youth are all at high risk of being trafficked. Munsey says, “Within 48 to 72 hours of living on the streets, young girls are approached for sex.”
Once the girls enter child prostitution rings, they are often branded with the name of the trafficker. “A lot of times," Munsey says, "a tattoo on their body will say something like 'This is the Property of Magnificent' or 'Anyone who touches her is indebted to me.' " One trafficker branded his girls with derogatory terms that both squashed their self-esteem and marked them as property.
Traffickers take measures to keep the girls from running away. However, if the girls do manage to escape, it's unlikely they'll be pursued. Munsey says, “The ugly truth is, it’s easier to get a new girl than to go after somebody who splits and try to force her back.”
If girls do want to start a new life, they don't have to pursue it on their own. Generate Hope works with frontline organizations like Hidden Treasures, a faith-based group whose members physically take to the streets and reach out to the exploited youth.
Once the girls have escaped, Generate Hope steps in.
Munsey says, “We try to show them a lot of love and give them a lot of positive feedback. For some, it’s their first time hearing what their worth is. It’s amazing how quickly they take it in. They soak it up, and you see the changes start happening.”
Some of the changes she sees? “Learning to not take negative comments about them as the truth, and there is a shift in focus from needing to have a man in their lives in order to feel good about themselves.”
Of the girls currently in the home, Munsey says, “They’re happy to be there. They’re happy to be sharing meals together. They’re happy to be getting an education. These are adolescents who didn’t get that family stuff; so they’re eager for it.”
Not only is Munsey changing these young girls’ lives, they are also deeply affecting hers. She had a troubled youth herself, and says, “I get so much out of this work. It’s helpful for me to be able to give back and help other adolescents.”