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The Epstein case is not an outlier. Child sex trafficking is ‘pervasive’ in the U.S.

New charges against billionaire Jeffrey Epstein have brought renewed attention to the problem of sex trafficking in the U.S. What is the scope of this disturbing criminal underground, and how does it prey on marginalized children? Lisa Desjardins talks to Yasmin Vafa of Rights4Girls about how the Epstein case aligns with patterns she sees daily, in which powerful men exploit vulnerable youth.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to the Epstein case, which has brought renewed attention to sex trafficking in the U.S.

    Lisa Desjardins explores the scope of the problem.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Thanks, Judy.

    Sex trafficking is a crime that happens across the country, in cases that don't usually receive this much attention from the media.

    Here to explain this troubling criminal underground is Yasmin Vafa. She's executive director of Rights4Girls, a human rights group dedicated to ending violence against young women and girls.

    Thank you for joining us.

    Let's start, first of all, with this Epstein case.

    His lawyers are saying that their client believed these girls were over 18 years old. And, also, they are saying that this wasn't child trafficking because, in their words, there was no coercion and there was no violence.

    I want to ask you. You're also an attorney. Legally, what is child trafficking?

  • Yasmin Vafa:

    So, under the federal law, there is no need to show force, fraud or coercion when it comes to the issue of minors.

    Under the federal law, anyone who recruits, patronizes, solicits a minor under the age of 18 for the purposes of a commercial sex act can be found guilty of trafficking. A commercial sex act is actually really broadly defined under the federal law. It encompasses any sex act that's exchanged for anything of value.

    So under the facts of this case, as alleged, it could absolutely constitute a federal anti-trafficking case.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I think I want to get to something deeper that might be going on here with this idea of what is trafficking or who are the victims.

    In this case, we saw a man who his friends even joked about that he liked young girls. I'm wondering, how much of this is in plain sight, the problem of child trafficking? How much of this is a cultural kind of ignorance or shrugging off of a serious problem?

  • Yasmin Vafa:

    What is unique thing about this case is the sheer amount of attention that it's getting, but it's not unique in the dynamics that are alleged.

    We know that men who are powerful, who have an enormous amount of privilege exploit the vulnerabilities of young women and girls every day here and throughout the country.

    What's interesting about this case is that it's getting an unbelievable amount of attention. But from our work on the ground, there are individuals, much like Jeffrey Epstein, who are extraordinarily wealthy and powerful businessmen. Many of them are actually white men who use that power and privilege to exploit vulnerable young women and girls.

    One of the things about this case is that there seems to have been a pattern of targeting incredibly marginalized young women, girls who were runaways, girls who had experienced unstable homes, maybe even girls from the foster care system. And that is consistent with what we see in the young women that we work with here locally.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I think people sometimes imagine child sex trafficking happening in other places to other girls, not girls that they know.

    How are these girls being lured in, in these cases, especially so adults can we aware of the risks?

  • Yasmin Vafa:

    Well, one of the important things to recognize is that, in the United States, the vast majority of sex trafficking cases actually involve American citizens.

    From the federal data, we know that upwards of 80 percent of all confirmed sex trafficking cases involve U.S. citizens and up to 40 percent of those cases involve the sale of children. And so it's an incredibly important American problem and one that's happening in communities all throughout the country.

    I think that one of the things that we're hoping comes to light and that people are able to connect the dots between the Epstein case and child sex trafficking all across this nation is that it's often very powerful men with means taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of some of our most marginalized young women and girls, oftentimes, kids who have experienced extreme childhood sexual abuse, kids who are from the child welfare system, runaways and homeless youth, and exploiting there vulnerabilities.

    It's actually a tactic that exploiters use, because they know that these are the kids that no one really cares about. They know that these are the kids who most often fall through the cracks and that, even if they do come forward, they are the kids who are least likely to be believed.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    part of the problem is, of course, all this is in the shadows, and these are vulnerable kids who no one else is looking for them.

    But what do we know about how prevalent this is in America today? What do you know from your experience?

  • Yasmin Vafa:

    So, what's difficult about this issue and quantifying it is that it is largely hidden. Some of the challenges are the fact that it is mischaracterized oftentimes as adult prostitution.

    Oftentimes, law enforcement and other first-responders don't actually correctly identify this as child sex trafficking. So we don't have exact numbers about the issue. But I can tell you, locally, here in D.C. with our partners on the ground that serve trafficked youth on a day-to-day basis, we're seeing about five to eight unique referrals per week of children who are being bought and sold.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Those are individuals per week?

  • Yasmin Vafa:

    Individuals, yes, and between the ages of anywhere from 10 years old to 17, 18 years old.

    In D.C., one of the providers called Courtney's House actually has three 11-year-olds that they're serving currently. So, it's incredibly pervasive. And the sheer amount of violence and degradation that these young children experience is unbelievable.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Thank you for talking about this very important topic, the executive director of Rights4Girls — that's Rights4Girls — Yasmin Vafa.

  • Yasmin Vafa:

    Thank you for having me.

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