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Advocates: Safe houses needed for sex-trafficked kids

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Faith-based hip-hop artist and producer Nigel “Legin” Anderson (right) discusses the challenges of fighting the child sex trade at a meeting of the Elizabeth City Morning Rotary Club at the Golden Corral in Elizabeth City, Friday.

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Sunday, August 5, 2018

There are nearly 5 million victims of sex trafficking across the globe but only a paltry number of places where they can go for shelter after escaping their traffickers, two advocates for victims told local Rotarians last week.  

Nigel “Legin” Anderson, a faith-based hip-hop artist and producer, and Brittany Dunn, spokeswoman for the Norfolk-based Safe House Project, discussed efforts to increase the number of safe houses for sex-trafficking victims at the weekly meeting of the Elizabeth City Morning Rotary Club on Friday.

Anderson has helped raise about $32,000 for a safe house in South Africa for sex-trafficking victims that is set to open in 2019. However, the problem of sex trafficking remains “under our radar” in America, he said.

When then-first lady Michelle Obama called for the rescue of girls kidnapped by the extremist group Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014, much of the reaction in the U.S. was “Oh my goodness, those poor kids over there,” Anderson said.

The challenge for victims’ advocates, he said, is convincing more Americans that child sex trafficking isn’t just an “over there” problem. Child sex trafficking is a “horrible” problem in the U.S., too, he said. 

“We have to respond and we have to respond quickly,” he said.

Dunn agreed.

“This is an issue that, once you see it, then you can’t unsee it. And we all have to band together to eradicate it,” she said, adding “The biggest atrocity that we see is those who know (about the problem) but do nothing” to combat it.

Dunn said race and economic status have little correlation to the trafficking of children for sex, noting that nationwide 40 percent of victims are trafficked by their own families.

She told the story of a 13-year-old girl who is now under the care of a Safe House Project partner after being a victim of sex traffickers for a number of years.

Dunn said the girl’s grandmother actually sold the girl’s mother into the sex trade. But after her mother got strung out on drugs and couldn’t be trafficked anymore, the grandmother and her boyfriend, to pay their bills, forced the granddaughter into the sex trade.

The sex trafficking of children also crosses gender boundaries. Dunn noted that in Seattle, boys comprise approximately half the number of children being trafficked.

Dunn said there are anti-sex trafficking organizations doing incredible work in offering care to survivors. The problem is they’re so focused on the daily struggle of assisting survivors, they don’t have time to fundraise. That can raise concerns about advocates’ ability to help victims and prevent their returning to a life in the sex trade.

According to Dunn, there are currently fewer than 50 safe houses across the country where victims of sex trafficking can go once they’ve escaped their traffickers, but only 10 of those actually serve children.

“That means that we will have thousands of children escaping sex trafficking that will have nowhere to go — and nowhere to run,” she said.

Dunn said her organization aims to double the number of safe houses for sex-trafficking victims in the U.S. over the next decade. The Safe House Project is working with other organizations to build additional safe houses, she said.

Anderson, who has produced and promoted music tours across the U.S. and performed around the world, talked about his efforts to help child victims of sex trafficking in South Africa after visiting a center for orphans with a church group in 2016.

He said about 130 children visit the center every day after school to receive food, clothing and help with their homework. The children then have to walk home, usually unaccompanied, sometimes two hours away.

He said he learned of the need for a safe house from center officials, who told him younger children are at extremely high risk of ending up in the sex trade.

Pausing briefly to compose himself, Anderson talked about a young girl he heard about who was raped while in the first grade and lost her mother when she was in the fourth grade. At nights, her brother, with whom she lives, leaves at night to be with his girlfriend.

“So, imagine fourth-grade with that experience, coming home from school, walking two hours to your shack, and nobody’s there to protect you,” he said.

Anderson said the girl’s circumstances grew so desperate, she began knocking on strangers’ doors, asking for a safe place to sleep at night.

Deciding he needed to do something, Anderson said he made an album and designed the proceeds to go toward establishment of a safe house in South Africa. Although the album didn’t result in much profit, once people heard the message behind it, checks started coming in.

Jan Riley, a member of the Elizabeth City Morning Rotary Club, said she was impressed with Anderson and Dunn’s presentation.

“They have a national program going forward that, I think, is going to be successful in creating safe places for the victims of sex trafficking,” she said.

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