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One Teen’s Fight Against Child Sex Trafficking
Melvin Pichardo
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Seventeen-year-old Victoria Pannell first learned about child sex trafficking when she was cast in a public service announcement (PSA). She would portray Monica, a 13-year-old girl who had been a victim of sex trafficking since she was 9. The 30-second PSA was for Fair Girls, an organization aimed at preventing exploitation of girls.

In the PSA, the actress, looking at the camera, shares some of the painful details of Monica’s experience: “I thought he was my boyfriend. I thought he loved me. But he raped me a bunch of times, then he sold me.”

The experience had a significant impact on Victoria. “It was the line about being forced to have sex with up to 10 men a day that made me feel overwhelmed,” she recalled in our interview in the YCteen newsroom. “Even though I was only 12 at the time, I felt that I wanted to do something to help girls like Monica.”

So Victoria started researching the subject and posting on her social media accounts to raise awareness. She explained that sex trafficking is the illegal business of recruiting, harboring, transporting, obtaining, or providing a person, especially a minor, for the purpose of sex. “It is modern day slavery,” said Victoria.

Who’s Most Vulnerable?

The reaction to her posts were swift and positive. “People became inquisitive and wanted to learn more. I then started a petition to have Village Voice Media sell off or get rid of its internet partner backpage.com, a classified advertising website that accounts for over 70% of online sex trafficking of children,” said Victoria. Her petition was part of a larger public outcry that led to Village Voice Media separating from the dubious site.

According to the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, between 100,000 and 300,000 youth are at risk for commercial sexual exploitation every year in the United States. Children who have been abused, run away, or were involved in the child welfare system are more susceptible because they’re emotionally and financially vulnerable. So to find kids, traffickers often linger around youth shelters, group homes, and foster care facilities. Half of reported victims are children, and 80% are girls. The average age of a victim is 13.

image by YC-Art Dept

“Let’s say you’re LGBTQ. You finally tell your parents, but they throw you out of the house and now you’re homeless. Or you’re a foster kid who’s being abused by your foster parents so you run away. You feel totally alone. Then some person pretending to be friendly and accepting approaches you and offers you money and kindness,” explains Victoria. “This is how traffickers lure kids who are unprotected.”

The Laws

After I interviewed Victoria, I learned that human trafficking is both a state and federal crime. Under the state law, there is a process to confirm victims, which makes them eligible to receive benefits and services that can help them such as shelter, food stamps, and counseling. This was an important law that was enacted in 2008. Before that, sexually exploited youth were prosecuted as criminals, which according to the New York State Department of Children and Family Services, “did little more than re-traumatize these victims.”

A few weeks ago, Carl Ferrer, the chief executive officer of backpage.com, was arrested on charges that included pimping a minor. “Child sex trafficking has gone from being a topic people don’t know about to being discussed openly. I like to think I had a little something to do with that,” said Victoria.

Still, Victoria is hoping to do more. She recently started a non-profit organization called Tools for Change. “I have worked with many organizations with similar missions, but I don’t see the money going directly toward helping the victims. I once went to a gala and the trafficking survivors looked like they had the clothes on they had been rescued in. I knew then I wanted to branch out on my own rather than be with organizations where I didn’t see direct help,” said Victoria.

Eventually, she plans to create safe homes for children who have been sexually trafficked. She wants doctors and therapist on staff for them. “I can’t give them their childhood back, but I can at least try to help them through the long process of healing.”



To learn more:
The National Human
Trafficking Resource Center
888-373-7888
ocfs.ny.gov/main/humantraffic or gems-girls.org.

If you or someone you know needs immediate help, call 911.

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(NYC-2016-11-23)

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