‘I was not a prostitute’
Girl Scouts host powerful discussion about child sex trafficking
“They use different tactics to draw you in. I knew him for 10 years. I didn’t think he’d do that to me.” — Shavon Ramos, describing how she was lured into sex trafficking by a former boyfriend
Any child can fall prey to a sex trafficker, and the bestway for parents to protect their children is to talk to them about who they spend time with and what they do.
Those were among the key takeaways froma powerful event Thursday night at Lewis University in Romeoville. An audience of about 50 people viewed the 2017 documentary “I Am Jane Doe” and discussed sexual exploitation of children with a panel.
A survivor of sex trafficking, an executive of an agency that serves children and an investigator with the Will County state’s attorney’s office were among the panelists. A Girl Scout troop spent about a year organizing and planning the event.
“When I sawthe (film) trailer inmy Facebook feed I was blown away,” said Utica Gray, leader of Girl Scout Troop 75142 in Bolingbrook. “I called my daughter down, and she saidwe should talk about it at a troop meeting. That started the discussion.”
Parents, teens and students in the women’s studies program at Lewis University were among audience members.
“I Am Jane Doe” chronicles the six-year legal and legislative efforts of parents and attorneys for girls whowere lured into sex trafficking. The film centers on the fight to remove sex ads from thewebsite Backpage. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is among those featured in the documentary.
Oscar-winning director Mary Mazzio interviewed sex trafficking survivors who later became litigants in lawsuits that sought to show how Backpage made it possible for men
to buy sex from girls as young as 12.
“It took me a while to realize Iwas not a prostitute. Iwas a child,” a youngwoman identified as J.S. says in the film. “It took me a long time to realize I wasn’t at fault for what happened to me.”
J.S. said that shewas lured into sex trafficking from her St. Louis-area home when shewas a seventh-grade student who played soccer and violin. She was raped by as many as 20 men a day, she said in the film.
Backpage, however, successfully fought lawsuits that sought to hold it accountable for advertisements that enabled men to easily buy sex from children. The film describes how federal judges found that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protected websites that published content posted by others.
After the screening, audience members heard panelist Shavon Ramos, 38, describe howshe was lured into sex trafficking by a former boyfriend.
“They use different tactics to draw you in,” Ramos said. “I knew him for 10 years. I didn’t think he’d do that to me.”
Pimps troll malls, high school sporting events and other public places looking for loners with low self-esteem, panelists said. They give young girls— and boys— attention, then use alcohol, drugs, fear and the threat of violence to sell them as sex slaves.
“We’re all hungry for love and acceptance,” said panelist Mary McGavin, chief operating officer of Joliet-based Guardian Angel Community Services. “If (children) don’t get it at home or school they go looking for it.”
Ramos said shewas coerced into luring other women and girls into the trade after her pimp terrorized her and her family.
“He broke me. I tried to commit suicide. I ran in front of a vehicle. I finally gave in,” she said.
Ramos said she and other women and girls were kept in hotel rooms, where they had sex with men who found them on Backpage. The film describes how Backpage moderators coached advertisers to post coded language to conceal illegal activity.
“Two hundred roses— that meant $200 for an hour,” Ramos said. “Pictures wouldn’t show faces so if theywere caught there wouldn’t be enough evidence.”
Parents asked panelists what they could do to protect their children.
Megan Brooks, chief investigator for the Will County state’s attorney’s high tech crimes bureau, said parents should encourage their kids to be kind to one another. Acts of kindness can make a big difference to children struggling with self-esteem, she said.
“They don’t have to be best friends, but they should acknowledge people as human beings,” Brooks said. “Spend time talking to your children. Your child’s friends can be the people who save your child’s life.”
Panelists advised parents to pay attention to what clothes their children wear and to monitor their online activities. Parents should listen to their children and try to understand howthe pressures of social “drama” at school impacts teens.
“You’d be surprised now many ninth and 10th-graders have stress,” said panelist Sherri Hale, an attorney with the Will County public defender’s office. “They have got as much stress as adults have. Each one of us can make an impact to not have a Jane Doe in this community.”
Parents have to communicate with their teens, Brooks said.
“Withmy 13 year old, there’s always drama going on,” she said. “Iwant to knowwhat that drama is. Itmay seem useless to me, but it’s not useless to them.”
Predators seek out children who are alone in public, and parents and children should be aware of their situations at all times, panelists said.
“I’ve taken pictures of cars on my street that I’m suspicious of,” McGavin said. “We’d like to believewe live in a “Leave It To Beaver’ world but we’re not there anymore.”
In “I Am Jane Doe,” filmmakers said there are an estimated 1.6 million homeless and runaway children in America. The estimated number of U.S. children who are victimized by sex trafficking ranges from 10,000 to 150,000 a year, according to advocacy groups cited in the film.
“Sex trafficking is not just someone else’s problem, it is our problem,” Gray said. “It is too important an issue to ignore.”
Lewis University’ s women’ s studies program and the Spirited Pearls Foundation cohosted the event with the Girl Scout troop.
Members of Girl Scout Troop 75142 in Bolingbrook introduce panelists Thursday at Lewis University in Romeoville. Panelists discussed child sex trafficking following a screening of the documentary “I Am Jane Doe.”
Panelists Shavon Ramos, from left, Mary McGavin, Sherri Hale, Megan Brooks and Alyssia Benford discuss child sex trafficking Thursday at Lewis University in Romeoville. Bolingbrook Girl Scout Troop 75142 hosted the discussion and a screening of “I Am Jane Doe.”