Rep. Wolf: I Can’t Get Holder To Go After Website Running Sex Trafficking Ads

Barbara Hollingsworth | March 7, 2014 | 11:05am EST
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Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) (AP photo)

( –  Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) took Attorney General Eric Holder to task for not cracking down on a website that has been identified as facilitating the sexual trafficking of minors numerous times by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

“I just can’t get him to do it,” a clearly exasperated Wolf said during last week’s hearing on sex traffficking by the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, which he chairs.

Last July, the FBI announced that it rescued 105 children and arrested 150 alleged pimps in 76 cities after monitoring and other websites often used by sex traffickers.

At the time, general counsel Liz McDougall told the Associated Press that shutting down the site would only encourage sex traffickers to run ads in "offshore uncooperative websites" beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement.

But Wolf insisted that the Justice Department crack down on them.

“At the same time, I’m concerned about actions the Department of Justice has not, N-O-T, underline not, N-O-T taken." Wolf said. "The subcommittee directed the department to report on the effectiveness of existing laws and authorities to go after websites such as, not just traffickers that advertise on them. The report was due on April 25, 2013. The dogwood was out when this was due. That was 10 months ago. To date, the subcommittee has yet to hear…

“I personally have written the attorney general over and over over the last three years urging the department to prosecute I think they’re, they're afraid of I mean, they won’t even say the word, they won't even articulate the word.

”And we're going to submit for the record...all the letters that were sent to the attorney general. In these letters I repeatedly wrote that if the department was of the view that current law would not support such action, then provide a  legal analysis and possible legislative language for how this could be remedied.

"Many of my letters went unanswered and the responses I did receive failed to address my primary concern with respect to I have even urged, to that effect, for Attorney General Eric Holder to publicly call out and similar sites to at least add an element of shame in the public square,” Wolf said. “I just can’t get him to do it.”

In a strongly-worded letter sent on Dec. 6, 2013, Wolf told Holder: “From now on, I’m going to hold you personally accountable for each victim trafficked on that Web site – each someone’s daughter, sister or mother. I’m asking you – not as attorney general but as a father – to use your remaining time in office to find a way to end’s trafficking of young girls and women.” (See Wolf letter to Holder.pdf)

“If we don’t close down Backpage, we can have all the hearings in the world and we won’t solve the problem,” the Virginia Republican stated.

Child prostitution has “become disturbingly more prevalent in some of the most affluent suburbs throughout the United States,” and social media sites have become one of the primary sources of victims for commercial sex traffickers, William Woolf, lead investigator of the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force, testified during the hearing.

An estimated 100,000 American youngsters from all socio-economic groups are lured into sexual slavery each year. Thirteen is the average age of “induction,” and the “average life expectancy of a trafficking victim is only seven years after the exploitation begins,” he testified.

Although law enforcement has increased its ability to identify victims of sex trafficking, Woolf added that “we’re also seeing an increase in the activity itself, and the reason that is is mostly because of the Internet.

“The ability for these traffickers to not only operate or conduct their criminal operations behind closed doors through the mask of the Internet, but also their ability to recruit these individuals as well. They commonly exploit social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and things of that nature, to be able to target their recruitment efforts, making them a lot more effective and efficient.

“They’re going on and finding young people that may have a particular vulnerability in their life at that time that the traffickers can exploit and draw them into a life of sexual servitude.

“We see other Internet-based companies like that is openly and in some senses legally advertising commercial sex. It gives these traffickers the opportunity to advertise to the general public the sexual services, and to advertise essentially our children online.”

The sexual exploitation of vulnerable minors is not confined to low-income areas, Woolf pointed out. It occurs in wealthy gated communities as well.

“Trafficking is most likely occurring in plain sight,” he said. “The white work van abducting our children from street corners and forcing them into a life of prostitution is very rare. Rather, it is smooth words and empty promises that trap and manipulate children, forcing them into a life of sex with strangers.

“The reality is that our children, one of the most vulnerable and sought-after populations by traffickers, can be exploited on a routine basis by these profit-driven predators and yet may still be coming home every night for dinner, sleeping in their own beds, and going to school every day,” Woolf added.

Children from unstable, financially struggling or homeless families, victims of prior sexual abuse, runaways and youngsters with low self-esteem or a need for attention are particularly vulnerable to psychological manipulation by sexual predators on social media sites, the veteran investigator said. Traffickers also recruit minors at schools, bus stops and subway stations, and shopping malls.

“The dynamics of family have changed over the past few decades, and the traffickers have taken note,” he said.

Many of the victims are wards of the state.

“One out of seven of endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in 2013 were likely sex trafficking victims,” CEO John Ryan testified at the hearing.  “Not only has this number increased from the previous year, it has tripled since we started comparing missing children to trafficked children….67% were in the care of social services or foster care when they ran.”

Once ensnared, underage victims are often given alcohol and illegal narcotics and “made to believe that they consented to their own victimization,” said Woolf, whose unit is currently investigation 42 human trafficking cases in the affluent suburbs surrounding Washington, D.C.

Woolf noted that “the victims never self-reported for fear of retaliation from their traffickers,” including threats of violence against their families.

In January, multiple agencies in Northern Virginia launched the Just Ask Campaign, which is aimed at educating teens, their parents and members of the community on the tell-tale signs of human trafficking.

Stephanie Vu said that she was just 12 years old when she was recruited at a party by a sex trafficker while her father was fighting in Iraq. “I met a handsome older boy who took a lot of interest in me,” she testified. “I soon learned that he was ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing’ with calculated designs on turning me into a product to be devoured.” She noted that another child she met was only 10 when she was forced into prostitution.

Victims are “frequently misidentified as delinquents, runaways and homeless,” Vu told the subcommittee, leading to “a chain reaction of negative outcomes,” which often includes being arrested for prostitution even though they are by law unable to consent to the sexual acts they are forced to perform.

“The arrest and treatment of the victim as a criminal is a secondary violence committed against her, compounding the trauma of the sexual violence she has already endured at the hands of the trafficker and the multitude of buyers who have used her,” she said.

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