Prostitutes are prosecuted in judicial systems across Michigan every day. That’s the black and white of it, but the gray area and growing ambiguity over the definition of prostitutes is sending up red flags for social activists throughout the country. Findings indicate that many sex workers are victims of human trafficking, having been forced into a life of depravity as children. But the fact is that while children are prostituted, they cannot be child prostitutes by definition.
“Here’s the thing; if you are younger than 18 and someone is making you have sex for money, you are a victim of sex trafficking, period, because you cant give consent, end of story,” explains television celebrity and former “Access Hollywood” host, Shaun Robinson.
Robinson, a native Detroiter and author is adding the resources of the newly formed S.H.A.U.N. Foundation for Girls to spotlight the players and bring the issue of sex trafficking to the national stage. During a recent sex trafficking symposium, The Empowered Girl: How NOT to become a Victim of Human Trafficking at the Charles Wright Museum, the organization awarded a $5,000 grant to Alternatives For Girls. AFG is a local nonprofit that helps homeless and high-risk girls and young women avoid violence, teen pregnancy and exploitation.
“Children are lured in by these savvy predators … many of these [girls] are poor, homeless, have self-esteem issues and a whole litany of social variables that make them vulnerable,” explains Robinson adding, “but what is more common than anyone knows is that thee are girls who are living with their parents, going to school and being forced after school to have sex and give a pimp money and then coming home and doing homework.”
The national Human Trafficking Resource Center states that there were 152 human trafficking cases reported in Michigan in 2015, which included 122 cases of sex trafficking and 18 cases of labor trafficking. In 2016, Michigan has seen a 16 percent increase in reported human trafficking cases.
“We want to dispel the myth that sex trafficking is just women who are standing on corners. They can be on college campuses, and they are being recruited online. There are all kinds of ways that men are luring these girls … including using other women to do it,” says Robinson.
“We have an outreach team at Alternatives for Girls which goes out into the streets, Michigan Avenue, Woodward Avenue, John R. and gets information and resources out to young girls and women. … We have a hotline and we keep track of young people and work with Child Protective Services to get them what they need,” explains AFG COO Celia Thomas. “The minute we find a case of trafficking we call in the Michigan State Police and the FBI, as well as the Detroit Police Department.”
The S.H.A.U.N. Foundation grant will provide critical financial support for AFG initiatives, which are often susceptible to fluctuation in funding for programs providing assistance to girls and young women at risk.
“Having the S.H.A.U.N. foundation for Girls recognize AFG as one of the pillars in this community with this work, is huge,” says Thomas. “This grant provides money to cover counseling time and case planners to work with young people to determine what happens next. We can also develop more kits that we provide to people who come in with trafficking as their primary issue.” AFG victims’ kits contain personal hygiene items and new clothing for victims of abuse. Since 1987, AFG has provided critical services to the girls and young women it serves, including safe shelter, street outreach and educational support, vocational guidance, mentoring, prevention activities, and counseling.
“We wanted to have this conversation and make it different,” adds Robinson. “We wanted to have all girls and women and make it kind of big sister talk. We didn’t want to get too policy heavy and cause girls to tune out, so we selected a panel of women who were at the forefront of eradicating the problem of human trafficking, including activists, judges, law officials and survivors.”
The Ford Motor Company partnered with the S.H.A.U.N. Foundation for Girls to make the Empowered Girl event a reality. “The Ford Motor Company Fund is pleased to join forces with this inaugural event for the S.H.A.U.N. Foundation for Girls here in Detroit while supporting such a dedicated, solution-based organization as Alternatives For Girls,” says Pamela Alexander, director of community development, Ford Motor Company Fund. “It is imperative that we educate and empower young girls and women to be vigilant of those who prey on our communities.”
“It’s time to stop blaming and persecuting the victims,” said panelists and human trafficking survivor Joyce Haskett. “I got out because I shot and killed my abuser … that was the first time I felt safe. And my first night in jail after receiving a life sentence was the best night’s sleep that I could remember.”
Joyce Haskett was released after serving more than 17 years in prison.
The S.H.A.U.N. Foundation also provides support for small grassroots nonprofit organizations doing work in five key areas of girls’ issues; STEM, Health, Arts, Unity and Neighborhoods.