The United States is a federal constitutional republic, in which the President, Congress and the Judiciary share powers reserved to the Federal Government, and the Federal Government shares sovereignty with the state governments. Although the financial crisis has resulted in a prolonged economic downturn, the United States still has the largest and most powerful economy in the world, with a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of around $48,000.
The country overall has a very high standard of living and was ranked fourth in the world on the Human Development Index (HDI) in 2010.
Despite the United States being a very high income country, US children are worse off than their peers in less rich countries in key areas of health, education and poverty. For example, infant and child mortality and rates of low birth weight are higher in the United States than in most other countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In addition, the rate of child poverty is double and the rate of teen births, over three times the OECD average. However, the US Government is working to address these issues. It currently spends more on children than most OECD member states and has developed several relevant policies, as well as a good knowledge base, with regard to child wellbeing.
The United States has also made progress in addressing the problem of commercial sexual UNITED STATES OF AMERICA INTRODUCTION exploitation of children (CSEC). Successful efforts in this area have included: adoption of strong legislation like the PROTECT our Children Act of 2008; the formulation and implementation in 2010 of The National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction; new initiatives promoting Internet safety and national public awareness campaigns; cooperation between public and private sectors; and the creation of national databases.
Despite these efforts, there remains a huge gap in the implementation of existing laws, policies and practises. Major factors contributing to this gap include: a lack of resources to assist victims; insufficient awareness of the extent of harm caused by CSEC; and widespread public attitudes that often view sexually exploited children as juvenile delinquents undeserving of protection.
While the United States has a well-developed child welfare system that includes risk assessments, family preservation, foster care and adoption services and youth development, these services are often only available to children with caregivers. Children living on the street, runaways and those who have been forced into prostitution are often treated as criminals instead of victims in need of assistance. Thus, the child welfare system needs to be adapted to provide specialised services to children and youth who are without caregivers or parents.
Although the prostitution of children is often perceived as a problem confined to developing countries, it regularly takes place in the United States. However, accurate figures about children being entrapped into this form of sexual exploitation are not available. According to government information, experts estimate that at least 100,000 children are exploited through prostitution every year in the United States; however, there is a paucity of reliable data about the source and characteristics of sexually exploited children. It is noteworthy that since the enactment of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (often referred to as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000), all cases of children exploited in prostitution are considered as child sex trafficking regardless of whether the victim is an American citizen or has been transported.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) notes that most of the children and young people exploited in the sex industry are girls, although an increase in the number of boys has been observed by some service providers. Child victims come from throughout the country, including inner cities and suburbs, and from many different income levels. The presence of boys appears to be more prevalent in larger cities.
Runaway and homeless children are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation through prostitution. These children are pushed to trade sex as a means of survival and are mostly persons who have fled sexual, physical and emotional abuse and impoverished environments. According to the NCMEC, 86% of victims of child prostitution are runaways from the child welfare system. Interestingly, many children recruited into prostitution are runaways from middle class families and are seeking a means of supporting life on the streets.
Most sources and statistics on child prostitution date back to 2001, highlighting a need to collect data on recent demographics. Prostitution on American-Indian reservations faces a particularly stark shortage of data.
A study conducted by the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center indicates Native American children are more vulnerable to abuse, affected by ‘generational trauma’ and that many homeless and runaway Native youth engage in ‘survival sex’- an act of exchanging sex for food, drugs and shelter. It is reported that 31 percent of Native children living in the US are poor and Convent House, the largest shelter house for runaways and homeless youth, housed 40 percent Native Americans in the year 2008. Jolene Goeden, a special agent of the FBI in Anchorage affirmed in a press statement that a large number of women working in the Anchorage sex trade were Alaskan Native and that traffickers and pimps were targeting native girls since they could be posted online as being Hawaiian, Asian or a Native Alaskan, given their diverse features.
Child trafficking for sexual purposes
The United States is primarily a destination country for adults and children trafficked from all over the world for the purposes of sexual and labour exploitation. The top countries of origin for foreign victims identified in 2010 were Thailand, India, Mexico, Philippines, Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. Internal or domestic sex trafficking, where American children and legal residents are trafficked within the United States, also occurs. US citizen victims of child sex trafficking are usually homeless, runaways or come from a broken home or dysfunctional family. Trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation takes place in street prostitution, massage parlours and brothels. Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, the primary element of trafficking has changed from transportation to exploitation; thus sexual exploitation of children, including child prostitution, is classified as child trafficking under this law.
Despite an increase in databases and research on trafficking issues, the US Government still does not know how many children are trafficked each year. Obtaining accurate figures is difficult because of the decentralised federal, state and local structures in the United States; the hidden nature of these crimes; and a lack of funding for relevant research. According to the US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2011, the lack of uniform nationwide data collection remains an obstacle to compiling accurate data on child trafficking victims. While federal law enforcement and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have data on prosecutions and victims, no such information is available from state and local law enforcement.
While there are no reliable estimates on child victims of trafficking in the United States, there is data on the number of foreign child victims who received assistance. In 2010, 92 eligibility letters for assistance were provided to foreign children, officially identifying them as victims of trafficking. Among them, 29% were victims of sexual exploitation – of which 30% were boys – while 62% were trafficked for labour and 9% were victims of both sexual and labour exploitation. While this data appears to indicate more victims of labour trafficking, the government suspects that, in fact, the majority of trafficking is for sexual exploitation, but this is not reflected in the data because authorities are better able to identify victims of labour trafficking.
Internal child trafficking has received increased attention in recent years. According to law enforcement statistics and field research, domestic child trafficking is increasing and children under 18 years old constitute the largest group of trafficking victims in the country. Research published in 2009 by Shared Hope International specifically focused on American children being trafficked internally for sexual exploitation. According to the study, “domestic child victims tend to be easy targets and carry less risk for the traffickers and buyers than adults and foreign nationals.” Between 2003 and 2010, about 1,200 American child victims were identified and assisted by US law enforcement agencies.
Child trafficking victims are usually recruited and exploited in prostitution by family members, friends and strangers, as well as by traffickers/pimps who pose as ‘boyfriends.’ While many victims are young people in the child welfare system and/or runaways, some are recruited from middle class families. Children trafficked internally may have a history of physical and sexual abuse in the home or be trafficked and sold for sex by a drug addicted parent.
Data from 2009 showed that the FBI arrested 235 male and 844 female children for prostitution and ‘commercialized vice,’ as compared to 206 male and 643 female children in 2008. In addition, a high percentage of adolescents rescued from trafficking return to the system as a result of the strong bonds established with their pimps.
The US Government has strong law enforcement initiatives aimed at prosecuting trafficking cases; however, less attention has been devoted to community-based prevention efforts aimed at protecting children. Despite the investment of millions of dollars on training, services and prevention of human trafficking, a small portion is allocated specifically for children. Additionally, there is a serious lack of specialised shelters and housing to provide immediate care and assistance to child victims of trafficking.
Child pornography/abuse images
More than half of the child sex abuse images that are sold for profit worldwide are generated from the United States. The United States is also one of the main hosts of commercial child pornography websites. According to the Internet Watch Foundation, 48% of the 8,844 child sexual abuse URLs identified in 2009 were located in North America. In 2010, that percentage had decreased to 42%, with 7,058 URLs reportedly hosted in North America.
To combat the problem, the National Centre on Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has allocated considerable resources to the identification of child pornography on the Internet. Two other programmes currently used by law enforcement agencies to identify IP addresses and catalogue images include: Operation Fairplay, initiated in 2006 in Wyoming and Florida, and Operation Round Up, developed by the University of Massachusetts in 2009. Together these two programmes have identified over 20 million different IP addresses offering child pornography files – pictures, videos etc. – on a peer-to-peer filesharing network.
Although quantifying the volume of child pornography in the United States is impossible, experts reported that child pornography is growing exponentially. For example, the CyberTipline managed by NCMEC has seen a 69% increase in reports sent by the public and electronic service providers between 2005 and 2009. Similarly, child abuse files and movies submitted to NCMEC’s Child Victim Identification Program in order to identify the children depicted increased by 432% during the same time period. Law enforcement statistics also confirm the high volume of child abuse materials produced and distributed in the country. From 2005 through 2009, a total of 8,352 child pornography cases have been prosecuted, and, in most instances, the offenders used digital technologies and the Internet to commit their crimes.
Besides an overall increase in child pornography, law enforcement officers are seeing more prepubescent children and infants in child abuse materials and more images depicting severe forms of sexual exploitation. Statistics provided by the US Sentencing Commission show a 65% increase in violent images between 2002 and 2008.
In line with a worldwide trend, most producers of these images in the United States are those who have established a relationship of trust with the child. Data collected by NCMEC indicates that 69% of identified child pornography victims were abused and/or exploited by people familiar to the children, including parents, other relatives, neighbours, friends, babysitters, guardians’ partners, etc. Only four percent were victimised by individuals with whom the child had no relationship. Children abused in the privacy of their homes are particularly reluctant and scared to report, which makes it more difficult to detect this type of crime. Despite these challenges, enhanced law enforcement coordination and the efforts of the NCMEC have helped identify and rescue a total of 2,312 victims of child pornography crimes in the United States as of May 2009, including over 1,000 of them since the launch of the Project Safe Childhood in 2006.
The United States is also seeing an increasing problem of online grooming for online and offline exploitation and abduction. From 2004 through 2008, the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force processed more than 20,000 documented online enticement complaints, including nearly 8,000 cases of offenders who travelled to the location of a child for the purpose of establishing physical contact. Online solicitation can also result in victims self-producing child pornography. According to NCEMC, approximately 28% of child victims identified by their programme produced images of themselves.
A survey was conducted in 2008 that polled 1,280 teenagers and young adults between the ages of 13 and 26 about their use of cell phones, computers and digital devices, as well as their behaviours and attitudes. It confirmed that taking, sending or posting sexually explicit photographs of themselves via cellular phones or over the Internet has become common among US adolescents. The survey found that 22% of teen girls – 11% of whom were between the ages of 13 and 16 – and 18% of teen boys have electronically sent or posted nude or semi-nude images of themselves. While most of these photographs were sent to a girlfriend or boyfriend, 15% admitted sending provocative images to someone they only knew online.
Child sex tourism
A significant portion of international child sex tourists are US citizens. In 2004 the percentage was estimated at approximately 25% of all travelling sex offenders; however, there is no recent data available. The U.S. does devote resources to investigating and prosecuting these cases, including by holding conferences around the world with local law enforcement and local NGOs seeking to work with local partners to get information about American child sex tourists.
It is a common belief among some Americans who sexually exploit children that it is legal and culturally acceptable to have sex with children in some foreign countries. Some of these sex tourists see such exploitation as a respectable way of helping a poor child earn money. It is reported that the US government does not generate sufficient awareness or provide prevention messages on child sex tourism and many travellers are unaware that engaging in child sex tourism is an offence in the USA, no matter where it is committed.
Since 2004, the number of child sex tourism reports submitted to the NCMEC CyberTipline has significantly increased. However, the number of reported incidents drastically dropped in 2008 and 2009, most likely reflecting an improved capacity of travelling child sex offenders to operate online in a less risky and detectable manner. Now, rather than planning their travel through sex tour providers, most predators avoid such companies, making their own travel arrangements and waiting until they arrive in the country to organise their illicit activity. In 2010, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) arrested seven nationals for child sex tourism, resulting in five indictments and six convictions.
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