‘I was not a pros­ti­tute’

Girl Scouts host pow­er­ful dis­cus­sion about child sex traf­fick­ing

Daily Southtown (Sunday) - - Front Page - Ted Slowik

“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.

TED SLOWIK/DAILY SOUTHTOWN

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.”

TED SLOWIK/DAILY SOUTHTOWN

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.”

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