I made the most startling discovery about the world around me when I was 20 years old.
My college career took a turn to the left back in 1970. The turbulent times of my generation were in full swing. After the Kent State Shootings on May 4th many college campuses, including mine at Florida Southern, closed to prevent further violence. I went home to Illinois. It was there that I decided to take some time away from my studies in psychology and work with children in trouble.
My mission was to ‘change the world’. Mom cheerfully called me the family do-gooder. The Executive Director at Vermilion County Children’s Home in Danville offered me a job as a residential child care worker. I readily accepted and began to learn far more than any formal education could ever teach. The startling discovery I mentioned occurred one day when two boys, aged 6 and 12 were admitted to the dormitory of which I was in charge. It was revealed to me during intake that the boys were found to be abused by their mother who sold them to men on a regular basis to do with as they may. How could this be? Who could do such a thing to innocent kids? Nothing in my upbringing or education prepared me to deal with the life that these boys endured. I vowed to myself that I would do something, somehow to help children like them.
Several years later, I found myself in Fort Lauderdale volunteering at Covenant House. The work they were doing to rescue boys in Times Square had spread to other cities. Children (mostly boys who referred to themselves as hustlers or chickens) were being bought and sold for sex by wealthy men called chicken hawks. I spent many hours talking to boys who lived at the Florida center. They sought safe shelter and counseling while continuing to hustle.
They were runaways from across the country that fled abusive homes to arrive at even meaner streets. Many of them had been kicked out of home by their parents for a variety of reasons. The stories they told me were dreadful. The discovery in Danville that awakened me to this tragic situation was becoming a silent nationwide crisis.
One of the kids I got to know was fourteen year old Tony (not his real name of course). He was a charming, handsome, manipulative boy who was the ring leader of the dozen or so others who were being trafficked by the trick or by the hour. He was from Ohio and had been raped by a step-father from the age of nine.
He ran away to warm weather on a bus bound for Fort Lauderdale. It was only a matter of minutes before he was recognized as a viable product by a man who sold boys and girls to tourists. Ultimately, he escaped to Covenant House. Tony told me that over 100 men had abused him in only a few weeks. He had become addicted to cocaine, alcohol and heroin. He believed that he would survive longer ‘running his own show’ earning $40 – $60 a trick making $200 or more a night. He fully understood that the average street kid survived for less than two years succumbing to addiction, STD’s or suicide. When I left Fort Lauderdale there was no doubt in my mind that he would not live long.
I was the director of a Medication Assisted Outpatient Treatment Facility in Anderson, South Carolina back in 2002. My office was just insider the front door and each patient who came to us for help could easily see me and was welcome to stop in. One day, a young man who had just enrolled in the program walked by on his way out, did a double-take, and stuck his head in my door. “Don’t I know you?” He asked. We chatted for a minute trying to figure out the connection when he asked me if I had ever been to Covenant House in Fort Lauderdale. I replied that I had.
He looked at me hard and said, “You are Father Bob!” That was the name the kids had given me so many years before. He cried; “It’s me. Tony.” He had lived and somehow transcended the streets. Tony went on to tell his story of heading back to Ohio, confronting his demons, seeking methadone treatment, and moving on. He had a wife, two children and a thriving EBAY resale business of baseball cards, memorabilia, furniture…anything but himself. What a miracle! We spent quite a bit of time together during his outpatient stay at our center. Then, one day, he moved on to another town. His triumph continues to give me hope even in this new age of increased horrific child and adult human trafficking.
Trafficking is a word that seems sanitized to me. It signifies that those who suffer are ‘the other’…that they are statistics and numbers which happen somewhere else to someone else. But that is a grotesque form of denial. These trafficked young people are OUR children. They are marketed in the worst ways by vile people. We are averting our eyes to the fact that these are kids for SALE. Covenant House, Loyola University New Orleans and The University of Pennsylvania conducted an exhaustive study of the merchandizing of homeless children. If their findings don’t make it real and don’t break your heart there is something terribly wrong.
Things have changed in an insidious way in the 21st Century. Don’t get me wrong. Kids still gather on the streets as a product to be purchased. There are still pimps who organize their activities. But the change comes in cyber world. Online dating sites have advertisements with code words that lure young people and match them with predators according to Tom Manning who I was privileged to interview at Covenant House International. There is a link to about every town in America on these pages.
One infamous site (I will not provide links) has a disclaimer stating “It is to be accessed only by persons who are 18 years of age or older (and is not considered to be a minor in his/her state of residence) and who live in a community or local jurisdiction where nude pictures and explicit adult materials are not prohibited by law. By accessing this website, you are representing to us that you meet the above qualifications. A false representation may be a criminal offense.” I bet that stops people from participating! More and more kids are going to the dark streets of the world wide web than hotel bars, bus stops and other noticeable places.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that they responded to 10,093 cases of possible child sex trafficking in 2017. Can you believe that? 10,093 children! The NCMEC provides hope and help for children, families and human service providers. We, as Chaplains, police officers and human service providers are in a unique position to do something to stop the madness. We chance upon and encounter trafficking frequently. First, we must be informed.
This journal offers hyperlinks to the best data out there. Second, we are called to serve our children by listening and being present without judgement while connecting them to services and phone numbers like Covenant House nines (800-999-9999) Third, we should include them in personal and community prayers.