Editor’s Note: This is a column written by Tiffany Greco, education director of the Advocacy Center in Tompkins County.

You can read an Ithaca Voice profile about the center here. You can read Greco’s first column about sex trafficking in Ithaca here.

The column was originally published in August 2014, but is being republished in September 2015 as part of a multi-part series by the Ithaca Voice, “Sex in the Shadows: An inside look at prostitution in Ithaca.”

Written by Tiffany Greco:

The previous column established several basic points about the sex trafficking of minors: it happens in our town, child and teen victims should not be treated as criminals, and exploiters of children for commercial sex acts must be held accountable.

In this week’s column, we’ll take a more in-depth look at risk factors that may cause children and teens to be more vulnerable to this abuse. The ploys of pimps, who intentionally exploit these vulnerabilities, will also be examined; and a brief glimpse into an inspirational community system response will be shared.

To begin, it is not easy to recognize victims, survivors, or youth at risk of commercial sexual exploitation.

A victim rarely discloses her abuse, may not identify herself as a victim, and/or may fear violent retribution by her pimp as a consequence for speaking out to an adult or peer.

From the victims who have disclosed or been identified, empirical data indicates that children who have histories of abuse, maltreatment, and neglect are at greater risk of being trafficked. Other risk factors may include a history of being involved with systems such as foster care and juvenile justice, and a history of running away from home. LGBT children may be at greater risk, as are those who have experienced ongoing stigma and discrimination.

Put simply, the children most at risk of being targeted by pimps often have unmet physical and emotional needs that pimps view as open doors for manipulation.

How pimps operate

Rachel Lloyd, founder and executive director of GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services) in New York City, and lead advocate for the Safe Harbor Act in New York State, was commercially sexually exploited as a teen for two years. Her story demonstrates how pimps capitalized on her vulnerabilities as a teen runaway. Prior to being trafficked, Lloyd describes ongoing abuse in her home since age 3.

She experienced ongoing racial discrimination from her peers. After running away from home, she was targeted by a pimp of whom she reflects in her memoir Girls Like Us, “It finally dawned on me. He doesn’t want to date me. He wants to make money off of me.”

As Lloyd’s and other victims’ accounts indicate, pimps intentionally target the vulnerable. They manipulate and exploit basic human needs for the sole purpose of making money. Pimps are willing to spend significant amounts of time breaking down resistance of victims because they know the pay- off is great. A pimp may earn hundreds of thousands of dollars every year by sexually exploiting children.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that pimps target children as young as 12-14 years old. Deception and trickery are commonplace. The lavishing upon of gifts and affection is an initial tactic. And in the case of a runaway or homeless youth, the pimp might provide food and place to stay.

The promise of love becomes a sick tool of business to build trust. Once trust is established, physical control in the form of threats, violence, and/or drug addiction typically follows. Such repeated, coercive methods keep the victim feeling powerless and trapped.

Depressed yet? There is hope.

A sergeant fights back

Acutely aware of victim vulnerabilities, the predatory tactics of pimps, and the unlikeliness that victims will self-report, Dallas Police Sgt. Byron Fassett saw not an inevitable cycle, but an interruptible one.

He developed what is now a nationally recognized model for identifying children at risk of being sex trafficked. It is known as the High Risk Victims Model (HRVM). In his work with the Dallas Police Department, Fassett discovered that 80 percent of child sex trafficking victims had run away from home at least four times in a year. It was this striking correlation that challenged him to stop, or at least curb, the seemingly fatalistic victimization process.

Sgt. Fassett created a unique approach to flagging chronic runaways as High Risk Victims (HRV). The HRV designation immediately elicits a victim-centered, multidisciplinary response instead of a traditional, interrogative one. Sgt. Fassett and his team provide specialized interviews for HRVs, specialized investigative models for suspects, and short term supportive placement outside of victims’ homes.

This model is incredibly effective in supporting victims and prosecuting pimps. Sgt. Fassett’s team identifies between 200-300 victims each year using this approach; ten years ago, they identified less than 10.

A greater awareness of risk factors for children, and deeper understanding of the psychological manipulation tactics of pimps empowers us as a community to respond to a cycle of child abuse that is at once reprehensible and preventable.

Sgt. Fassett recognized gaps in systems meant to protect children. He creatively and effectively filled that gap, all the while keeping a victim-centered approach at the forefront of his efforts.

As we look to next week’s column which will explore what we can do as a community to respond, Sgt. Fassett’s story serves as an inspiring example of how we can bolster the resiliency of child sex trafficking victims in Tompkins County by creating comprehensive and supportive community responses.

For further reading on this topic check out the following memoirs from survivors:

• Walking Prey: How America’s Youth are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery by Holly Austin Smith

(Palgrave Macmillan Trade, 2014)

• Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale by Rachel Lloyd (Harper Perennial, 2012).

If you suspect someone is a child or teen victim of sex trafficking, you can make an anonymous tip online or by phone 24 hours a day, 7 day a week through the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at www.cybertipline.com or call 1-800-843-5678. Information given will be provided to law enforcement for possible investigation.

The Advocacy Center is available 24 hours a day 7 days a week at 607-277-5000 to offer free and anonymous support if you or someone you know is a victim of sex trafficking, or any other form of sexual or domestic violence.

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.