missing children
FBI National Missing Children’s Day 2019. Photo credit: FBI

The leader of an LA-based nonprofit talks about the trafficking of children -- a growing scourge.

The recent stories about Jeffrey Epstein have brought into the spotlight the broader issues of human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children. It’s a crime not usually discussed in polite company, but one that is growing exponentially in the US, even as Americans are repeatedly told that violent crime is down.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast we talk with Kim Biddle, the founder and CEO of Saving Innocence, one of the leading nonprofit agencies that are taking on this problem.

According to Biddle, there are well over 300,000 kids being ensnared each year in the US — and Texas authorities tell her that there are over 80,000 just in the state of Texas.

Many of them are from vulnerable populations, with about 70 percent coming from the foster care system.

The problem is not being talked about enough, and not being addressed by the media, or either political party. Moreover, one of the things that concern Biddle is the fear that, as more people become aware of the problem, the exploiters go further and further underground.

She talks of kids being sold online, deals being made in hotel rooms, activity on the dark web, and the challenges faced by even the most diligent law enforcement efforts.

The children, mostly girls, are between the ages of seven and 18, with an average age of 13.

She explains how hard it is to recover these kids. As an example, she says there are an estimated 10,000 kids unrecovered in Southern California alone. For those that are found, it’s a long road back with limited and underfunded resources.

She is seeing kids that have suffered brainwashing, Stockholm Syndrome, trauma, and PTSD.

She would like to see much greater law enforcement and legislative efforts concerning the regulation of the sex industry, and punishment for those who pay for or try to purchase human beings, especially children.

She reminds us that as long as buyers get away with it, the crimes will continue.

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

Jeff Schechtman: We’re often told that crime is down, that in spite of what it sometimes appears, violent crimes have been on the decline. It’s certainly not true of all crimes. In fact, the increase in human trafficking and the trafficking of children being bought and sold for sexual exploitation is one of the fastest growing crimes in America. Yes, in America, not in Cambodia or Thailand, but right here in the U.S. Recent events in the news with respect to sexual exploitation of children only bring this problem into bold relief.

Jeff Schechtman: Joining me to talk about the scope of the problem and what can and is being down about it, I’m joined by Kim Biddle, the founder and CEO of Saving Innocence, a Los Angeles-based non-profit. Kim, thanks so much for joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Kim Biddle: Thank you so much for having me.

Jeff Schechtman: First of all, tell us a little bit about Saving Innocence, about your organization, and a little bit about what its goal and mission is.

Kim Biddle: Saving Innocence was founded in 2010 to provide crisis intervention services and restoration and advocacy for children who have been victimized through sex trafficking. We’re based in Los Angeles but we serve children nationwide. We also provide a lot of education and training for government officials, as well as other non-profit organizations from around the country, to learn best practices for finding these kids and providing them the best after-care services possible.

Kim Biddle: We also just launched our foster family agency, so it became one of the first organizations in the country to provide that full continuum of care from that crisis intervention alongside law enforcement, where we go on sting operations and provide that emergency escape from their nightmares of being caught in trafficking, to fully being restored, as well as now being able to place them in loving, forever homes.

Jeff Schechtman: And how big is the problem? It’s something that we hear about periodically, but I don’t think people have a sense of really what the scope of the problem is today.

Kim Biddle: Right. Like you said, I think that most people when they think of trafficking, they think of a child in Cambodia, or some labor trafficking in Africa, but really when we’re talking about this issue in the United States, the majority of victims that we’re seeing caught in human trafficking are American. And of course, with any crime, it preys on the most vulnerable. So, the amount of children that are being exploited every year is estimated to be 300,000 plus, and we’re seeing that number and estimates of that number increase, the more that governments and states begin to more appropriately identify and take records of this crime.

Kim Biddle: For example, Texas is a state that we have recently partnered with in helping our services be replicated throughout the state of Texas, and they did a recent study where they found that about 80,000 children, just in the state of Texas, were being exploited for sex in that state alone. So you can imagine how large this problem truly is, especially where there is a lot of demand for it, for sex entertainment, where there’s a lot of vulnerable populations, like LGBT, or poverty, or youths that are involved in the foster system. The majority of our clients do come … About 70% were in the foster system before they were trafficked, so, it’s preying on the most vulnerable kids in our communities.

Jeff Schechtman: And where is this taking place? Is it being initiated online? Is it happening on city streets? Where is this taking place?

Kim Biddle: A lot of the recruitment began either through someone that they know, someone that befriends them, acts like a mentor or a boyfriend, or is recruiting them online through common social media like Facebook or Instagram, and really promising them the world, and then coercing them into a situation that they no longer believe that they can get out of. So, it’s both.

Kim Biddle: These kids are sold both online … Craigslist used to be a huge avenue for that before we saw some legal action be taken place to regulate that, but it’s still very common that these kids are sold online, that they’re sold out of hotel rooms, that they’re sold on the streets. I would say street level exploitation and sale of these little human beings is becoming more hidden, and more under the radar, as people have become more aware of this crime. So, it’s pushed it more online and in the dark web.

Jeff Schechtman: And what age range are we talking about?

Kim Biddle: Well, Saving Innocence has now helped almost 1500 children between the ages of 7 and 18 escape human trafficking, so these are very much young kids. The average age that the child is first exploited through sex trafficking is around 13 years old. The average age of one of our kids that we are currently assisting and providing services for is around 14 1/2. So, it’s really young children that are being preyed upon and exploited.

Jeff Schechtman: Given the growing numbers here, why aren’t we seeing more attention focused on this on the part of law enforcement, or are we, and just are unaware of it?

Kim Biddle: I think in certain areas, law enforcement is taking incredible initiatives. Law enforcement in Dallas has been pioneering a more appropriate response to this problem. Law enforcement partners in Los Angeles here, we’ve helped launch, alongside law enforcement, which includes local law enforcement at Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, as well as FBI, we’re on task forces with them. And we’re in collaboration on cases with them on a weekly basis. We do sting operations with them on a regular basis.

Kim Biddle: So, there are certain areas where they are involving advocates. They understand that this is a specialized victim population. They’re able to recognize the crime as it is. Up to this point, it was being masked under an adult misdemeanor of prostitution, when it’s important to understand that children are much too young to consent to a crime of sex. When you’re looking at the history of the U.S., just five years ago, it was more likely that an 11 or 12 year old would be arrested for prostitution, a crime she’s obviously too young to consent to be a part of, and we began looking at this, peeling back the layers, to see more obviously how exploited she was, that she was under the control of someone else who was receiving all of the financial benefits from that crime and keeping her into a very controlled and abusive situation.

Jeff Schechtman: To what extent is social media adding to the problem today?

Kim Biddle: It’s a good question. On one hand, it’s providing a really easy accessibility to the children, and children … And oftentimes, that’s unregulated by parents. Parents aren’t super involved in what their kids are doing online, or on social media. It’s sort of become this social platform that feels more real to a lot of youth than real life friendships. And they’re very trusting. They assume who’s contacting them is really who they say they are. They’re meeting up with people that they don’t really know. So, it’s providing an easy recruitment tunnel for exploiters to have access to young and naïve children, and children who are in desperate need of someone to care about them. I mean, I think that’s a huge factor in this is a lot of these kids don’t have the family or the resources, financial resources, or just the love that they are designed to have, and so when someone comes along and offers that to them, that’s meeting a huge need that they were intended to have met in their life.

Kim Biddle: So, social media provides this façade of being able to sell something to them, sell a life to them, a dream, a relationship, and coerce them into a situation that is impossible to get out of without law enforcement and advocacy intervention.

Jeff Schechtman: What has been the nexus between local, state, and federal law enforcement with respect to these crimes?

Kim Biddle: Local law enforcement and federal work very closely together in areas like Los Angeles County. Oftentimes, you’ll see them determining how it’s best, falling under each other’s jurisdiction. Most cases can be prosecuted under federal law because the majority, if not all, of the kids are exploited through child pornography, taking pictures of them, selling them online, exposing those pictures to potential buyers. And so, that child pornography component makes it very easy for it to more easily be prosecuted under federal law. And so, you’re sometimes seeing cases where maybe local law enforcement will be able to build their cases to then prosecute on both the state and federal level, which helps get more time allotted to conviction.

Jeff Schechtman: How are these children recovered once they get into this?

Kim Biddle: They are often recovered through specialized operations. Sometimes other children will tell law enforcement where these kids are located and tell other kids, “Get out.” Sometimes kids will reach out for help themselves. But oftentimes, it’s been the high-level crisis scenario. They’ve tried to escape. They’re hiding in a laundromat somewhere. They’re calling for help. Or, local PD have been doing investigations, recognize something seems a little off, recognize that there’s more of a trafficking crime happening, and then they’ll begin their investigation.

Kim Biddle: And in that investigation, when they’re ready to go in, we are on call as Saving Innocence advocates. We respond 24 hours a day, seven days a week to law enforcement. We respond within 90 minutes of that phone call. We are either on the street or in a police station or a hospital, ready to take care of that child when that recovery takes place.

Kim Biddle: And then it’s a long road with that kid, you know? Oftentimes, there’s a ton of brainwashing. There’s a ton of Stockholm syndrome. There’s a lot of trauma. Often, trauma before the trafficking happened, because these kids are coming from the foster system and have a history of abuse and neglect. And so it’s really a long journey of building trust with these kids and affirming who they are, and that they are lovable and very loved and deserve a life that they have dreamt about. We really stick with the kids for the long term, often for years to come.

Kim Biddle: There’s something that we refer to a lot called the stages of change, which really talks through how sometimes there’s gaps in the sense of running away, being terrified of stability, having to go through the process of believing that they deserve and can have the life that they want, when their life, up to this point, has been so commonly riddled with trauma. And within that, we fix through, we don’t judge. We provide unconditional love and eventually that trust can be built. Then on that foundation, we’re able to support them with services like housing and food and helping them get their driver’s license, and helping them get their high school diplomas, and set them up for success.

Kim Biddle: We have 25 kids right now about to graduate high school in a couple of months, and a few kids going to college. I mean, these kids really are some of the most miraculous and resilient kids that I’ve ever met. When they have the right resources and support in place can absolutely fly and become healthy, societal-contributing adults.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about how many organizations like yours are working on this problem around the country.

Kim Biddle: You know, it’s been growing, which is exciting. I mentioned we were just called in by the governor, Governor Abbott of Texas. His office had launched a human trafficking division, and they called us in to provide some consultation for them. So, we helped, throughout the state of Texas, trained 10 different organizations to provide services modeled after what we have developed with law enforcement out here in Los Angeles, which is that 24/7 response. It’s called the First Responder program. It sets protocols for both law enforcement and probation department and child welfare, as well as protocols for advocates like us, as to who’s responsible for what, how do we respond. And so we’ve been on a mission to help other organizations across the country be able to do what we do and just pass on all the mistakes and lessons that we’ve learned in the last decade of doing this work.

Kim Biddle: So, that’s been super exciting to see officials and leaders across the country really take this seriously, now that they’re recognizing, wow, this is really happening in my back yard. Wow, this is really happening to our kids, and it’s our responsibility to protect the most vulnerable in our society.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the success that your organization and some of these others are having in terms of dealing with the problem.

Kim Biddle: It’s a huge success. I mean, just that partnership between the law enforcement and advocates is critical, because it sets the cases up for success, because the defense attorneys are sort of counting on these kids being too traumatized or unwilling to testify, or unwilling to give statements of any kind. And it takes healing and courage to face your perpetrators. So, by that partnership, it’s creating a lot of success, as far as convictions go, seeing more life sentences, seeing 99% of these cases get strong convictions, which makes all of our communities safer in the long run, and our kids’ life safer. Then we’re seeing a ton of success with the resiliency and the healing of these kids, being able to place them in communities, reintegrate them into community-based organizations and other resources where they can get support and eventually even a family that can love them in the long term.

Kim Biddle: So, all around, I mean, it’s definitely challenging and you definitely have to stick with it. I mean, some of these cases, for example, especially the federal level one, can take four or five years before they are complete. It’s a long haul, and it’s a commitment in relationship with both our partners in law enforcement as well as to the kids and to the success of their life. But sticking with them, having that tenacity to love them well and to really do whatever we can to make our partners’ jobs easier. Because that’s, I think, a huge key, working with probation, working with child welfare. We’re all a team, and when these kids don’t have support, we’re now sort of co-parenting, and the better that we can work in unison, the more that child feels safe and knows that they’re going to be okay because they have a team around them that really cares about them.

Jeff Schechtman: What percentage of children are not recovered?

Kim Biddle: Wow. I wish I knew that answer, and I think it’s scarier than we think. I’ve heard law enforcement estimate that there’s 10,000 kids in southern California alone that need recovery. And if you’re looking to set our stats, we, last year, helped a little over 500. So, the gap between how many kids we’re currently helping, how many kids are being recovered, how many kids are being identified and potentially how many are out there in need of that escape and in need of those services and support, it’s pretty alarming. The majority of our cases are coming through law enforcement so they’re coming through some investigations that are more sex-crime focused. But there’s a ton of kids that are being trafficked in connections with drug trafficking rings, in connection with gangs, and we’re not seeing as many of those referrals right now.

Kim Biddle: There’s a lot of familial-based trafficking. There’s a lot of issues, especially in areas like Los Angeles County where you have a high number of immigrant populations and people who may not trust law enforcement, and so it’s pushing the crime into the darkness of our society where people don’t feel safe, necessarily, reporting or reaching out. And so I think that there is an alarming number of kids that we’re not reaching yet.

Jeff Schechtman: And is there anything that you and organizations like yours would like to see done with respect to public policy that might help this?

Kim Biddle: Sure. There’s a lot, probably, that I think that we’ve come a long way, and there’s … We’re so encouraged by all the work we’ve been able to do with our incredible partners, but I think that there’s still room to grow. One particular area, really, is in the demand side of this issue. Human trafficking, at the end of the day, is a business. It’s a crime. The intention of that crime is for someone to exploit another person to make money. And that business wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a demand for it, so regulations and anything regarding the sex industry and regarding the porn industry and regarding prostitution and regarding anything that involves sex as entertainment, there needs to be a stronger look at that, especially as the internet has grown and has helped that be more and more unregulated. And criminals go unpunished, or overlooked, for the sake of free speech.

Kim Biddle: And there’s just a disturbing number of human beings out there that want to pay for another person to provide them what they want in that moment, and it doesn’t matter what age they are. It doesn’t matter that they’re a human being, what their story is. And so, really looking at this crime as a human rights crisis, where we’re allowing the dehumanization of people in our communities, especially the most vulnerable, need to be looked at. That can’t really be taken seriously if we’re allowing the buyers to get away with this crime.

Kim Biddle: Currently, in L.A. County, it’s more likely for someone to be arrested and given a simple misdemeanor or a citation, pay a few hundred dollars fine, and be sent on their way, than for anyone, to the buyer, to be criminalized for the rape of a child, have to register as a sex offender. None of those things are really happening nationwide. We need to take that more seriously, because yes, these traffickers are bad guys and they’re preying on these kids, but they only exist because there’s men out there very willing to purchase them or to rent them out for an hour. And we need to look at that, and to look at the health of our society and what we’re allowing to happen.

Jeff Schechtman: Kim Biddle, her organization, Saving Innocence. Kim, I thank you so much for spending time with us.

Kim Biddle: Thank you so much.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

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