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Sex traffickers lured to big events like the Super Bowl

Crowds gather in Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI.
Crowds gather in Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI.

The Super Bowl this weekend in Indianapolis will attract thousands of football fans and people who like a big party.

It will also lure human traffickers who set up in hotels so paying clients can have sex - sometimes with children.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates 100,000 kids in this country between the ages of 12 and 14 are drawn into a life of prostitution every year.

There is an outreach effort trying to connect with teens trapped in that life.

Project SOAP is in Indianapolis this weekend.

It conducted a similar operation before the North American International Auto Show last month in Detroit.A little hope from a bar of soap

Just before the auto show, volunteers like Jamie and Ana dropped by hotels with boxes filled with bars of soap.

The wrappers have the phone number for the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

The hotels were picked because they’re located near clusters of sex-related businesses– strip clubs and adult bookstores.

Almost all the hotels offered hourly rates and sold condoms and sex aids.

Some were clean.

Some stank of garbage and urine.

The pitch to hotel staff starts softly - a request to hang a poster of missing children, then the offer of free soap for their hotel rooms.

“There’s some things to look out for like maybe a young girl coming in with a much older man, or lots of people coming in and out, and we also have some bars of soap that have that number on it and that we’d like to give you some bars of soap for free and you could.”

“You just said the magic word - free.” (laughter)

The hotel manager unlocks the security door to take the soap.

The pitch wraps up with a request that hotels train their staff to look out for signals that a child is being held captive by a trafficker.

Project SOAP - it’s an acronym for Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution - is the brainchild of Theresa Flores.

Flores says she was blackmailed as a teenager living in Oakland County into two years of a life of forced sex with strangers.

She says events with large crowds like the Detroit North American International Auto Show and the Super Bowl, also attract sex traffickers - many of whom travel from event to event.

"It doesn’t have anything to do with the show itself," says Flores. "The Super Bowl’s not bad, NASCAR’s not bad and neither is the auto show. It’s just the fact that it’s a mostly male event where guys are coming in from all around the country and internationally."

Flores says traffickers will roll into town in the days before a big event, find a place to stay, and start posting ads online offering women, girls, and sometimes boys - for sex.

Tax-free cash

“This is their business and they feel like they’re a businessman, an entrepreneur. And they’re making a lot of money," says Flores. "The average pimp makes about a thousand dollars per night per girl - tax-free, cash.”

 Flores says she figured out that big events like the Detroit auto show, and the Super Bowl also offer an opportunity to connect with girls and women at what she calls “their lowest moments.”

She says a few minutes in the bathroom is often the only alone time for the victims. She hopes girls will take the soap and use the hotline number when the opportunity presents itself.

She says, in Detroit, at least one girl being trafficked during the auto show used the number to ask for help.

Michigan, like many states, is fighting human trafficking - that is people being coerced and forced into involuntary servitude. Sometimes it’s being a servant, or forced labor, and often it’s vulnerable girls and boy who are taken in and then forced to perform sex for money.

A special unit to prosecute traffickers

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette says his office formed a unit to specifically prosecute human traffickers.

“It’s wrong in 21st Century Michigan and 21st Century America - that should not be occurring.”

Schuette’s office filed two sets of charges last year under a state law that was updated in 2010 to impose harsher punishments for human trafficking.

The National Association of Attorneys General is also trying to pressure online services like Backpage.com to do more to block ads for sex with children.

Safe harbor law

But Lori Kitchen of the Michigan Women’s Foundation says more can still be done.

She says Michigan needs what’s called a “safe harbor” law.

It would protect girls who are being trafficked from being charged with prostitution and treat them, instead, as victims.

"We need counseling services. These girls are suffering from post-traumatic stress. There’s a good chance they have some sort of drug addiction or substance abuse problem," says Kitchen.

"They’re suffering potentially from some favorable impression of their trafficker because that’s the person that was caring for them. That’s also the person who probably taught them that if they go to seek help they will probably be put into the criminal justice system."

Prosecutors are trying to craft a law for Michigan, but have been reluctant to give up their ability to file criminal charges.

Kitchen says the life expectancy for women who’ve worked as prostitutes is about 40 years old.

She says girls and women who remain continuously in “the life” typically live just seven years from when they start, succumbing to substance abuse, hard living, or a violent death.

Kitchen says that fits her definition of a victim.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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