On July 29, 2013, the FBI concluded its seventh, and largest, Operation Cross Country sweep, “a three-day nationwide enforcement action focusing on underage victims of prostitution,” according to the Bureau. We spoke with Janmarie Brown, director of Gateways, a residential recovery program for victims of commercial sexual exploitation, whom we profiled this past May, and Leslie Gottlieb, director of marketing and communications at the Brooklyn-based Jewish Child Care Association, which runs Gateways, about how the groundbreaking story resonates within our own, seemingly safe borders.
WM: What were your thoughts when you heard the news?
Brown: I definitely applaud the FBI for their efforts. Everybody heard about this; it was on every station…it’s a very big step, yet a small step, because this [issue] continues to touch our country. It’s a devastating problem.
Gottlieb: [Gateways] has a waiting list now, so it’s a growing problem; the need is greater.
WM: The numbers reported seem staggering.
Brown: [The FBI] has rescued, in three days, I believe 105 young people between 13 and 17, and I think it was 150 alleged pimps [who were arrested] and 76 cities—San Francisco, New Orleans…
WM: I think many people are, or would be, shocked by how prevalent domestic human trafficking is.
Gottlieb: Many of the young women in our program are not the stereotype the average person would think of. When you’re a teenager, which one of us hasn’t had trouble at home, in school, with friends?
Brown: It could be something as small as their parent wouldn’t let them go to a party and they got upset and walked out of their house. And all it took was someone to give them that ear: “Hey, let’s talk.” There is some type of vulnerability there, but there is not a look, a dress; it’s not ethnicity. It can be anyone from any background.
WM: If we’re not sure how to pinpoint who is at risk, is it possible as a community to stop this from happening?
Brown: What we can do as a society is to not close a blind eye to it, not say, “That can’t happen where I live.” You never know who you know has experienced pain.
WM: What have victims, like those rescued, gone through? Physical force? Drug or alcohol abuse?
Brown: All of the above. We’ve had girls from all walks of life, who have had “gorilla pimps” who are physical to them, the “gentleman pimp” that just used his words. Whether it was physical, emotional, psychological—they have all experienced some type of abuse.
WM: Do some still have psychological or other ties to their abuser post-rescue?
Brown: Undoubtedly, and that’s where the work is. It’s about them recognizing what they’ve gone through, rebuilding, and moving on. And then reconnecting to what they need to reenter society and not have to resort back to that if they at any time feel [a void left by a person who purported to care about them].