Awareness event focuses on sex trafficking prevention and education

Penn State’s Child Maltreatment Solutions Network, along with the Colleges of Information and Science Technology (IST), Communications and Nursing, recently hosted "Sex Trafficking: Vulnerabilities and Solutions," a half-day awareness event dedicated to sex trafficking prevention and education.

The event, held in the Founder’s Room of the Bryce Jordan Center on the University Park campus, covered issues and topics from across the trafficking spectrum, including presentations by trafficking researchers, legislators, activists, judges and survivors of this heinous crime. Penn State students, faculty and staff, along with professionals across the Commonwealth, listened to and participated in discussions regarding sex trafficking, with a special focus on how the crime affects minors.

The event opened with a trailer of “The Turn Out,” a fiction film on trafficking produced by Pearl Gluck, assistant professor of film and video in the College of Communications. Gluck’s film addresses the issue of sex trafficking at truck stops and the possibility of bystander intervention. The film provided attendees a look into one aspect of the sex trade while setting the stage for the day’s event.

Network Director and Professor of Human Development and Family Studies Jennie Noll, who presented long-term research on the underlying causes of child sex trafficking, said that the unprecedented access that today’s minors have to the Internet makes them more easily targeted by predators and traffickers, locally and on a grander scale.

“The vulnerabilities that these kids are engaging in are fertile ground for perpetrators,” Noll said.

Noll’s study focused on the link between teens’ Internet usage and susceptibility to involvement in sex trafficking. She presented Facebook profiles of the young girls participating in her longitudinal study and pointed out what traffickers look for when zeroing in on new victims. Things like age-inappropriate and sexually explicit language, revealing photos and posts about instability at home were common themes in the subjects that Noll deemed "high-risk."

The Internet’s vast presence in trafficking reaches far beyond the recruitment point, to the actual buying and selling of illegal sex acts with minors. Student researchers from the College of IST, along with IST Associate Dean Peter Forster, discussed the ways in which current practices fall short and allow illicit trafficking sites like Backpage.com to continue, while feeding victims of trafficking into the criminal justice system.

Mike Bartley of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and retired FBI agent, discussed how exploitation and even victim brainwashing play into a victim’s fear and inability to leave a captor. He added that, presently, there is no way of knowing how many children on NCMEC’s list are involved in sex trafficking.

U.S. Congressman Charles Dent spoke on the legalities that are currently in play in combating the growing issue of sex trafficking, such as his push for the Secure Our Skies Act, which, if enacted, would require airline personnel to receive training and report on any suspected human trafficking they encountered while working and the United States’  collaboration with Europe to stop this disturbing trend globally.

“I’m very pleased about some of these efforts,” Dent said. “We are not finished with our actions on this. This is just the beginning.”

While laws and in-depth analyses are essential to understand and ultimately end sex trafficking, the event also incorporated an unfiltered human element to this very real issue. Sex trafficking survivors Barbara Freeman and Jennifer Kempton detailed their personal accounts of being coerced into and escaping the sex trade industry.

Freeman and Kempton explained the abuses, addictions, relationships and manipulations that led them to being trafficked, and the brutal reality that became their lives for years.

Both women had been raped multiple times, were kept exhausted and malnourished by pimps and were worn-down and abused, physically and emotionally. Freeman was able to change her life with help from religion and Judge Kevin G. Sasinoski of Changing Actions to Change Habits (CATCH) Court.

“Life is about second chances, third chances, twenty-fifth chances,” said Sasinoski at the Network event. “I’d like to think that all of us have all had a second or third or fourth chance at something.”

Kempton closely escaped death before her second chance. After a violent and horrific rape, she attempted suicide. It failed and, for her, that was the turning point.

“I started a very long process of trying to heal and restore my life,” she said.

Kempton now runs a nonprofit that pays for the removal of "branding" tattoos for survivors of trafficking. Freeman also is running a nonprofit to help women who are currently on the street, and is a motivational speaker. Both women made one thing very clear: Trafficking is a pervasive, close-to-home issue that can impact anyone at any time.

“It’s in your backyard. Anywhere there’s a truck stop, anywhere there’s the internet, anywhere there’s a hotel, it’s happening,” said Kempton. “You can’t just walk out the door and say you don’t know, so what are you going to do about it?”