Traffic in human lives

Our view: Rescuing juvenile victims should be the first priority

August 05, 2008

For the young women who dance in bars and clubs on The Block, Baltimore's adult entertainment district, life is a few days or weeks of cheap thrills, then years of drug addiction, abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, emotional torment and early death. Few newcomers realize the future that awaits them. As The Sun's Jonathan Bor reported last week in an article about the health risks faced by prostitutes, their odds of escaping it are vanishingly small.

Mr. Bor's story focused on city public health workers' efforts to help dancers on The Block avoid HIV infection by giving them free condoms and clean needles. Yet the gaudy trade in sex and drugs associated with The Block is only the most visible aspect of a much larger social evil: the global trafficking in human beings that authorities describe as a $9 billion-a-year criminal enterprise. Dancing in strip clubs is rarely a profession one chooses; the girls often are lured or coerced into the lifestyle. They are victims as much as foreign-born women who are smuggled here and elsewhere.

Last week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced 345 arrests in a nationwide crackdown on prostitution rings that preyed on children as young as 12. The operation targeted 16 areas, including Atlanta, Boston and Washington as well as Montgomery County, where prosecutors had earlier won convictions against traffickers for forcing immigrant women and girls into prostitution.

Many youngsters are sold into sexual slavery by their families to support a parent's drug habit. The FBI estimates 300,000 children in the U.S. are at risk of being exploited by the commercial sex trade.

In Maryland, a task force of health and law enforcement officials is meeting to chart strategies for combating human trafficking. The panel has focused on three areas: raising public awareness of the issue; identifying and rescuing trafficking victims, particularly underage girls and boys; and aggressively investigating and prosecuting those who traffic in other human beings.

That's a step toward putting teeth in a state law passed this year that makes trafficking juveniles punishable by up to 25 years in prison. But more must be done to reach at-risk children before they fall into the clutches of pimps and drug dealers. The waste of young lives is a national tragedy, and it is heartbreaking.

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