I met Eleina in a leafy suburb of the Dutch capital Amsterdam. She was living in a small safe house for victims of forced prostitution.
“Nice to meet you” said Eleina in perfect English, one of her three languages. As we talked, I found myself impressed by Eleina, an elegant, well-spoken brunette. It was hard to imagine she’d been forced into a life of prostitution. (Listen to Eleina tell her story in the video below; her face will not be shown)
The safe house, really an apartment where nine Dutch girls aged 14-plus sleep side-by-side in a cramped attic, is run by Anita de Wit. De Wit founded a small NGO, Stoploverboys.nu, after seeing her daughter’s pseudo-boyfriend force her to work in Amsterdam’s red light district. Eleina had come here to reclaim her life.
Eleina is relatively lucky. She is in a safe-house, she’s educated and like many other Dutch ‘internal’ trafficking victims, she has loving parents who support her and lobby the police and the government on her behalf. In America, that would be unlikely to happen.
Sex trafficking in the U.S. affects 100,000 to 250,000 American children, some as young as 12, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. That huge spread reflects the difficulty in establishing reliable trafficking statistics, but one thing is clear: in the U.S., these child prostitutes get little help. In part, that’s because many are runaways, fleeing broken homes, or pursuing drugs. They have no one to care for them.
That was true for “X,” a young woman who felt she could no longer live with a crack addict mother. She went to live with her father, who turned out to be an alcoholic. He threw her out when, at 16, she could not afford to pay him $900 a month rent. Homeless, she wound up in the hands of pimps who had her beaten when she became pregnant. “They left me there like a piece of garbage,” X said in testimony she read before the Judiciary Oversight Committee in December 2011. She’s also identified as Alissa in this New York Times column by Nicholas D. Kristof.
“What the U.S. badly lacks is special residential shelters,” says Andrea Powell, executive director of FAIR Girls, an anti-trafficking NGO based in Washington, D.C. FAIR Girls used to run a shelter in Boston for international trafficking victims, which is itself a significant problem in the U.S. But in 2008, Powell started to realize how large the domestic problem was — only 22 states appear to offer resources. Now it runs a day center in D.C., Jewel Girls, where 100 girls age 11 to 21 receive food, counseling and can work in a jewelry making business to keep them off the streets. But they do not have what they really need, says Powell: beds. “If we had funds, we’d open a space.” She says. “It’s a terrible situation.”
Instead of a safe haven and trauma counseling, such girls get shunted into detention centers, foster homes and even mental institutions. Powell says police and child welfare services organizations treat runaways as delinquents, criminals in the eyes of the law. “The majority of these children suffer from post-traumatic-stress-disorder, they have education needs, it’s like starting at ground zero,” she says, “that’s why we need specialized shelters.”
Powell: “They need absolutely everything.”
Nightmare in Amsterdam
Eleina was 18 years old, living with her parents and younger brother and studying for a lucrative career as a language interpreter. Then she met Khalit at a nightclub.
His “beautiful eyes” and kindness made an impression on her. That first evening, they simply talked and danced. She says he seemed genuinely interested in her and her family. “We danced but there was never a hint that he wanted sex, only texts the following day: ‘Are you OK? Did you get home safely? Please let me know,” says Eleina.
Soon they were dating. Eleina felt she was in love. One night, late for a date, he arranged for her to meet some of his friends, so she wouldn’t be alone in the dark while she waited.
Khalit never came. Instead, Eleina says his two friends and their companions gang raped her. They photographed the rape and warned her they would expose her if she went to the police. Humiliated and afraid, she told no one but Khalit.
Eleina: “They abducted me to a park.”
He was enraged — at her. He called her a whore and broke up with her. Like many victims, Eleina thought it was somehow her own fault.
She now knows that her ‘boyfriend’ is a Lover Boy, the Dutch name for a member of a pimping gang, comprised mainly of second and third generation Dutch Moroccan and Antillean men. Most Lover Boys are school dropouts and live in communities where unemployment is three times higher than in the white Dutch population.
After he had handed her over to his pimping gang, she was beaten regularly, forced to have sex with strangers, and told they would target her family if she didn’t obey. She still lived at home, but “I’d beat my younger brother. I couldn’t let mum and dad kiss me good night anymore,” she says. Not knowing what was happening, eventually her parents asked her to leave.
Eleina: “Who would believe such a crazy thing?”
Pimping is legal in the Netherlands. Coercion and exploitation are not. But building a case against the likes of Khalit is challenging. “Victims are usually too infatuated or terrified to testify against their pimps,” says Jean Custers, who heads the child trafficking police team in Rotterdam.
In the U.S., prostitutes are criminals. Worse, U.S. anti-trafficking laws lag behind the times. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act, signed into law during the Clinton administration, was designed to help foreign victims of trafficking. That battle exposed that the bigger problem in the U.S. was domestic trafficking. Half of U.S. states do not have the necessary laws to adequately protect child victims of sex trafficking, according to Shared Hope International, an anti-trafficking NGO and legal advocacy group founded by former Congresswoman Linda Smith. See its map of the US league tables.
Only Illinois, Tennessee and Vermont (under 18) and Connecticut (under 16) give minors immunity from prosecution for prostitution.
In this respect the Netherlands is streets ahead. Prostitute trafficking there has become a middle class problem, and the middle class has political sway. As a result, regional governments pay for dozens of shelters across the Netherlands.
These shelters began as homes for victims of international trafficking and domestic violence. Today they cater increasingly to Dutch children, victims aged 11 plus. Shelters are purposely located far from home, mainly in the north of the country and even in France and Spain. Most are secure. “Here the brain-washed girls are de-programmed” says Marianne Van Thoren, a social worker from Rotterdam. They catch up with lost schooling and receive trauma counseling.
But there’s a long waiting list, and some girls end up in detention centers. Eleina says she might have been one of them if not for Stoploverboys.nu, a small NGO funded mainly by concerned parents.
Eleina was afraid to turn to the police until she got pregnant and lost her child following a severe beating. She no longer cared if she lived or died, and decided to testify against her Lover Boys. Eleina believes it’s too late for her tormentors to be brought to justice. She says a judge dismissed her case for lack of evidence of physical force. She is now awaiting an appeal.
Stoploverboys.nu’s Anita de Wit says many girls, including her own daughter, Angelique, suffer a kind of brainwashing, and return to their pimps repeatedly. Some victims call it ‘voodoo.’
In the U.S., Powell says the same thing often happens. “We need to train people to understand what these girls are going through”, says Powell. “They may have PTSD or they may think they’re stil in love with their pimp. You can’t just say, ‘Hey, stop being in love.’ You have to go through a process to make girls realize the so-called ‘love’ they are getting is unhealthy.”
Powell: “We’ve left foster homes and seen pimps circling the block.”
“X” never loved her pimp. She found an agency that helped her to get access to a victim’s compensation fund both to fix teeth broken when she was beaten, and to help her with her PTSD issues. The fund is tricky to access and not all states provide it, explains Powell. “If a child is arrested for a ‘crime’ such as prostitution, that could potentially disqualify them.” Compared with many victims, X was lucky. She is now 23, a college student and rebuilding her life.