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The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

Stolen Childhood

The voices in the shadows sound young, almost childlike.

Too young to be so knowledgeable about this topic; about the abuse, the pain, the stolen innocence and the degradation that they express.

Yet they do know.

They know of an unspeakable problem that lurks in many American communities, not just San Antonio. "I’m just scared all the time," a female voice says, while images of dolls, playgrounds and other symbols of innocence flash on the screen.

"I just want to take a bath and rub myself, rub all the shame off myself," another young voice tells an interviewer.

The video, produced by social work students at UTSA, sheds light on the sex trafficking of minors that goes on almost unseen in San Antonio and throughout the country.

Children, some as young as middle school-aged, are coerced into providing sexual favors in exchange for money, illegal drugs or things as basic as food and shelter. Sometimes it begins at the hands of an abusive parent or guardian, sometimes of a so-called "friend." Once the pattern begins, it often persists into adulthood, setting the stage for a difficult life.

The legal term for this practice is domestic minor sex trafficking. Finding it is hard. Stopping it is harder. The behavior is secretive. Laws are inconsistent; social welfare and law enforcement agencies have conflicting policies and objectives. By the time the legal system encounters its victims, they usually are teens or young adults arrested on prostitution charges. Even then, they are reluctant to speak out about how the abuse began or to bring charges against their abusers. They are wrapped up in low self-esteem and battered psyches and afraid of losing the only relationships they know.

Public awareness is the first step toward a community solution. That step is now being advanced by a group of UTSA master’s degree students in the Department of Social Work. These students took on the topic of domestic minor sex trafficking last summer during an advanced policy course with Robert Ambrosino, an instructor in the College of Public Policy. The course curriculum required them to produce a public awareness campaign around a local social issue.

After discussing the complex and tangled world of domestic minor sex trafficking, the group decided to produce a documentary video as a way to launch a community discussion on the problem.

Behind Closed Doors, Voices from the Inside features interviews with victims themselves as well as with community stakeholders, drawn from the political leadership, criminal justice system and social service agencies.

"She would hit me when I didn’t want to go out with these guys," a young victim says, recalling how the abuse started at the hands of her mother.

"It started when I was 16," another victim says.

Joe Raymond Vega, a San Antonio filmmaker, directed and edited the video for the project. Ambrosino’s students, although their summer course has ended, are continuing their involvement by taking the video to groups that want to learn about the issue and join the dialogue for change.

"There are some horrible stories out there about young women—and men, because it happens to boys, too—being introduced to sex trafficking when they are 8 or 9 years old," said Ambrosino.

He said the abuse sometimes starts in the custody of a parent, who may be a prostitute or have drug addiction problems. Sometimes it is a male relative who pressures the child to begin sexual activity. Or it might be someone who offers friendship to a runaway or a child from a troubled home.

The abuse becomes a trafficking offense when there is the exchange of sex for something of value, which could include money, food, gifts or drugs. There’s also a phenomenon called "survival sex," when a minor agrees to have sex in exchange for basic human needs like food and shelter. The victims bond emotionally with their abusers, Ambrosino said; they believe that the adult abusers care about them and keep them safe.

"What you have is an incredibly unreported crime," he said. "What you are seeing in the film is the tip of the iceberg."

The first shock of awareness came among the students themselves. Most of them, Ambrosino said, are non-traditional students who came back to school for advanced degrees after working in a social service field. Several were like Rene Esquivel, a 45-year-old former chef pursuing a career change.

"You see what you perceive as prostitution and people making these choices," said Esquivel. "As we were doing these interviews and talking to these young women and men, it became clear that they were victims of sex trafficking. They didn’t really have a choice."

Early in their project, the students made a connection with an outreach worker who was able to help them meet young victims. Esquivel said the students were able to interview 10 people—minors and adults, women and men—who were coerced or manipulated into the sex trade as children or teens. Sometimes the students met them in safe locations for video recordings that shrouded their faces and protected their identities. Many of the interviews were just with tape recorders, conducted on the street while the victims plied their trade. It is the only life they have known and one they are afraid to leave, Esquivel said.

"This project was a transformative experience for my perception of things," Esquivel said. "I’ll never look at it the same way—that this was some choice that they made."

"A lot of them don’t realize they are being trafficked," said Jenna Rothrock, who worked for Child Protective Services before returning to UTSA for a master’s degree. "They will look at you in a confused way. They say, ‘I’m not being trafficked. I love this man.’"

Rothrock led the student team that interviewed state agency officials and community leaders for their take on the problem. "A few people were oblivious to it," she said. "Others were aware to a certain extent."

Change begins with knowledge, Ambrosino and his students said. That is the driving purpose of their film project. One of their connections was with state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who has worked to get state laws more in line with federal statutes, which provide for stiffer penalties for the adults who promote sex trafficking. The students also connected with Shared Hope International, an organization that seeks to eliminate sex trafficking worldwide. The organization wants to link with UTSA for other projects to raise awareness and change public policies.

"People need to be aware," said Rothrock. "They have to understand it first before anything else can happen."

–Cindy Tumiel

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