Categories for Investigative Reporting

I-Team: Sex Traffickers Recruit Women In Prison Promising Home And Money After Release

April 13, 2022

OCALA, Fla. — In the world of human trafficking, victims, sold for sex, are not always identified as victims. Instead, they are often arrested.

That’s something Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd acknowledged after a number of women were arrested in a sting operation.

“We know some of these ladies we arrested for prostitution denied being victims. However, there will be follow up by this wonderful team of folks because we know some of them are victims. That would not admit to being a victim,” Judd said, referencing a team of anti-human trafficking nonprofits that work with survivors.

Misty LaPerriere, a law enforcement liaison for Selah Freedom, said the path to identifying as a victim is rarely a straight shot.

“Sometimes it takes 8 to 10 points of contact before somebody is ready to get help and get out of ‘the life,’” she said.

There are women currently serving time in state prison for crimes committed while they were victims of sex trafficking — a reality the Florida Department of Corrections is now addressing, through new efforts to connect survivors with legal services and safe housing upon their release.

The Florida Women’s Reception Center, a state prison in Ocala, has an inmate capacity listed as 1,235. The I-Team met roughly 100 at a re-entry event. This event is for prisoners with less than a year left on their sentences. Statistics show three out of four women will be back.

Read the full story by Kylie McGivern on ABC Action News.

New Details Revealed On Visas Given To Victims Of Human Trafficking

March 20, 2022

Three years ago, while fact-checking what we described as “fantastical human-trafficking claims” by President Donald Trump, we discovered that the federal government did not publish a breakdown by nationality of visas given to victims of human trafficking, which are known as T visas.

It was a strange gap in the data. The best information we could provide was to note that 40 percent of T-derivative visas, for family members, were issued by the U.S. Embassy in Manila. We were frustrated enough by this issue that we even sent a note to staff members for key congressional committees urging that this data be made public.

With little public notice, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, recently released a breakdown on 14 years of human-trafficking visas in a fact sheet.

T visas, created in 2000 when Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, are available only to victims of human trafficking and require that the applicant be in the United States or at a port of entry “on account of” trafficking. Visa applicants also are expected to assist in the investigation or prosecution of human trafficking. (There’s also another type of visa, the U Visa, for victims of serious crime who assist law enforcement.)

“This report was created as a tool for the general public to understand and recognize the characteristics of T Visa applicants and was published in January 2022 as part of USCIS’s commitment to supporting and protecting victims of human trafficking and other serious crimes,” said Anita Rios Moore, a USCIS spokeswoman, in a statement to the Fact Checker.

We’re publishing some highlights to draw attention to the new data. We’ve noted before the paucity of reliable data on sex trafficking — and how what numbers are available indicate that many politicians rely on exaggerated figures.

Read the full story by Glen Kessler on The Washington Post.

On Ghana’s Lake Volta, Child Slavery Is In Plain Sight

September 5, 2021

(CNN)The steel gray clouds hung like an ominous slate blanket over the far reaches of Lake Volta, Ghana. From the shores I stood gazing out at a wooden fishing boat on what I presumed to be a family out fishing for the afternoon: two older boys and their three younger brothers, messing around with fishing poles and nets, catching fish for their evening meal.

My comment to that effect drew a sharp retort from my translator. This was not a family outing; these were enslaved teenagers and their young charges on a predawn to after-dark workday on the lake. It brought me up short. As a photographer who has traveled to more than 150 countries, often to document forced labor and human trafficking in dangerous conditions, I thought I had a pretty thorough awareness of the social and humanitarian horrors of modern slavery.

Unlike some of my other expeditions, however, there was nothing secretive about this. I did not have to sneak into a Nepalese brick kiln factory to document workers stacking and loading dozens of bricks on their heads in sweltering 100-plus degree heat. Or climb 200 feet down a rickety abandoned mine shaft to photograph enslaved gold miners. No, here on Lake Volta, the largest artificial lake in the world, child slavery was in plain sight. There was no attempt to hide anything: right before me were children as young as five forced to work up to 18 hours a day, with no pay, often little or no food, in dangerous, dirty conditions. The sheer brazenness stunned me.

According to the nonprofit organization Free the Slaves, more than one-third of the 1,620 households surveyed in and around Lake Volta housed a victim of child trafficking or someone held in slave-like conditions. Yet this is not an ancient, entrenched tradition in this place: Lake Volta was only created in 1965 when the forestland it now covers was flooded during the construction of a hydroelectric dam to provide Ghana’s electricity supply.

Read the full story by LIsa Kristine on CNN.

The State Of Ohio Vs. A Sex-Trafficked Teenager

June 27, 2021

The paperwork was signed, her belongings were stuffed into a plastic bag, and then, finally, it was time. She was guided down a long hallway. She stepped through a metal detector. A heavy door was pushed open, and Alexis Martin walked out of prison.

“Where am I going?” she asked her lawyers, hesitating on the sidewalk. It was April of 2020, the pandemic’s early days, when Ohio’s governor was going on television every afternoon to talk about shutdowns and masks and case counts — until the news conference when he had something else to announce. He was granting the release of a 22-year-old incarcerated woman.

“She was 15 years of age when she committed the crime,” Mike DeWine explained. “She is a child sex trafficking survivor.”

He was echoing what Alexis’s defenders had been arguing since the night in 2013 when the biracial 10th-grader was involved in a robbery that turned into a murder.

Prosecutors knew Alexis wasn’t in the room when the shots were fired, maiming one man and killing another. They still charged her with murder and demanded that she be tried as an adult, saying she was the one who led the robbers into the house of Angelo Kerney.

But as her case moved through the criminal justice system, little attention was paid to how the 15-year-old girl knew the 36-year-old man in the first place. Or what witnesses said he was doing to her. Or why she called him “Dad.”

A judge said Alexis was “working” for Kerney’s “escort” business and sentenced her to decades in prison.

Read the full story by Jessica Contera on The Washington Post.

Why Do We Let Corporations Profit From Rape Videos?

April 29, 2021

This article contains descriptions of sexual assaults.

This isn’t about pornography, but about rape and sexual abuse.

“I’ve no problem with consensual adults making porn,” says a Canadian student. “Who cares?”

The problem is that many people in pornographic videos weren’t consenting adults. Like her.

Just after she turned 14, a man enticed her to engage in sexual play over Skype. He secretly recorded her. A clip, along with her full name, ended up on XVideos, the world’s most-visited pornography site. Google searches helped direct people to this illegal footage of child sexual abuse.

In a video above this column, she recounts how she begged XVideos to remove the clip. Instead, she says, the website hosted two more copies, so hundreds of thousands of people could leer at this most mortifying moment of her life, preserved forever as if in amber.

That happens all over the world: Women and girls, and men and boys, are sexually assaulted or secretly filmed, and then video is posted on a major website like XVideos that draws traffic through search engines. While the initial video assault may be brief, the attack on dignity becomes interminable.

“The shame I felt was overwhelming,” the Canadian student says.

I wrote in December about Pornhub, a Montreal-based website that pioneered access to free porn uploaded by anyone — so-called tube sites that are like YouTube for nudity and sex. Since that article, credit card companies have stopped working with Pornhub, the site has removed more than nine million videos, and the Canadian and United States governments have been cracking down on the company’s practices.

But as I noted at the time, the exploitation is rooted not in a single company but in an industry that operates with impunity, and punishing one corporation may simply benefit its rivals. That’s happening here. When Pornhub deleted videos, millions of outraged customers fled to its nemesis, XVideos, which has even fewer scruples.

Pierre Woodman, a veteran European pornographer, told me that while I may have damaged Pornhub financially, for XVideos “you are Santa Claus.”

That’s not a comfortable feeling, and it’s why we need to work to rein in an entire rogue industry — and for now, the behemoth is XVideos, bolstered by Google and other search engines.

“We are the biggest adult tube in the industry, with an average of two billion daily impressions worldwide,” boasts XVideos, which SimilarWeb ranks as the seventh-most-visited website in the world. Two slots behind is a sister website with almost exactly the same content, XNXX.com. Each gets more visitors than Yahoo, Amazon or Netflix.

XVideos and XNXX appear to be owned by mysterious French twins and based in a nondescript office building in Prague not far from Wenceslas Square. This building is the hub of a porn empire that gets six billion impressions a day and inflicts anguish all around the world — which raises a question:

Why do we let companies get away with this?

Read the full story by Nicholas Kristof on The New York Times.

Unseen: The Boy Victims Of The Sex Trade, Part II

April 27, 2021

Jose Alfaro says he was perfect prey for a sex trafficker because of the color of his skin.

The Mexican American youth was 16 years old and homeless when he reached out for help on the internet more than a decade ago.

He joined a gay chat room and met an older man named Jason Gandy who offered him empathy and a place to stay.

“It seemed like a dream, and at the time, not having anywhere to go,” Alfaro says now.

But the dream quickly became a grim reality. Gandy told Alfaro he would have to work in the older man’s “massage” business, which was a euphemism for prostitution. Alfaro provided sexual massages to Gandy’s clients in his Texas home in transactions that escalated to sexual assault.

Gandy would go on to become the centerpiece of one of the most notorious male sex trafficking cases to be tried in a U.S. federal courtroom. Three of his four documented victims, including Alfaro, were Latino. But at the beginning, Alfaro thought Gandy was just providing a place he could call home.

Many young men have traveled the same path to homelessness and then to sexual exploitation — and young Black and brown men are disproportionately at risk.

“Race plays a major role in human trafficking,” said Alfaro, who is 29 and now works as a hairstylist on Boston’s Newbury Street.

Read the full story on WGBH.

Unseen: The Boy Victims Of The Sex Trade, Part I

April 15, 2021

Chris Bates was 16 years old when he started selling nude photos of himself on the internet to adult men who pressured him for more and more images.

The demands snowballed into riskier requests, and within months the gay Connecticut teen was trading sex for dinners out, designer sneakers and other luxuries.

Bates says he was lured by the attention and what appeared to be easy money. He secretly hoped his financially struggling single mother, or anybody, would notice what was happening and protect him.

No one did — and within two years, the tall, lanky youth was living alone in a dilapidated apartment, prostituting himself to get by. His home — and an array of hotel rooms in Connecticut and Massachusetts — became a “revolving door” of sex buyers.

“I really thought I was the bad person selling myself,’’ said Bates, now 26 and living in Worcester. “I didn’t realize that I was a victim.”

Bates’ story is unusual only in that it is so rarely told: Boys and young men lured into the sex trade and victimized in ways the public generally assumes applies mostly to women and girls. But there is growing evidence that in New England and across the United States there are likely thousands of male victims of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking, far more than previously understood.

In Massachusetts alone, more than 411 boys have been referred to the state Department of Children and Families since 2018 for concerns they were victims of commercial sexual exploitation — about 15 percent of the total number of referrals, according to state data. An additional 109 youth were identified as trans or non-binary, state data shows.

The state just started collecting this data in 2016, and it is widely considered to be an undercount. Definitive data is still lacking but recent studies show boys and young men are being exploited at much higher rates. A 2016 national study found more than a third of young people involved in the U.S. sex trade were boys and young men. That same year, a federal study found a third of male youths experiencing homelessness said they traded sex for something of value — putting their numbers in the thousands on any given night nationwide.

Yet too often male victims of sexual exploitation go unseen and unhelped, specialists say, their stories stifled by personal shame, stigma and a world that has trouble seeing boys and young men as victims at all, especially gay and trans youth and boys of color.

In Massachusetts, there is one program focused solely on helping sexually exploited male youth and trans females, and its revenue last year was less than half of its sister program for female youth run out of the same nonprofit, Roxbury Youthworks, Inc.

Prosecuting exploiters and traffickers of boys and young men is even more challenging. The Office of the Massachusetts Attorney General has filed 62 sex trafficking cases since 2012, but only one includes a male victim, state officials say.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey says her office strives to hold exploiters accountable, whatever the gender of their victims, in what she calls one of the “fastest growing criminal industries in the world.” She says many victims are unwilling to speak out, silenced by fear, trauma, and often substance abuse issues. She says she is working to better identify male and trans female victims. “We have to absolutely talk about the fact that it is not just girls, it is boys as well,’’ she said. “They suffer from the same trauma, the same victimization, the same exploitation.”

Read or listen to the full story by Jenifer B. McKim and Phillip Martin on WGBH

 

Human Trafficking Crisis In Indian Country ‘Like A Pandemic’

March 30, 2021

In the summer of 2019, Molina Richards got a call that made her stomach sink. One of her best friend’s teenage daughters had gone missing on the Rosebud Reservation.

It took police several days to organize a formal search party because they kept getting tips that she had been seen in various parts of the vast, 1,900-square-mile reservation in one of the most isolated parts of the lower 48 states.

“All the leads, they didn’t find her,” Richards said, choking back tears as she recalled the trauma of that July day.

Richards ended up part of a six-person search team on ATVs. They finally found Waniyetu Rose Loves War whose English name was Autumn. She was dead at 19.

But Richards had already feared the worst.

“It’s always in the back of your mind, growing up here,” she said.

Nobody knows how many indigenous people go missing or are murdered every year. There’s just not a lot of comprehensive data. But on long neglected reservations such as Rosebud, tribal members are convinced the crisis is worsening everyday.

Tribal governments are renewing pressure on federal and state authorities to devote more resources to the crisis, and there are signs that’s starting to happen.

“With Waniyetu’s situation, I promised my friend I would never let anybody forget her name,” Richards said.

“Like a pandemic”

To that end, Richards wrote and recently won a grant from CARES Act funds available to tribes to open a shelter for women and homeless teens on the reservation. The first of its kind safehouse will be staffed around the clock. It will also be a badly needed refuge for people who are otherwise walking out in the cold all night, organizers said, moving from boarded up gang-run houses, to drug parties, their feet swollen, or far worse.

Read or listen to the full story by Kirk Siegler on NPR.

The Children of Pornhub

December 15, 2020

This article contains descriptions of sexual assault.

Pornhub prides itself on being the cheery, winking face of naughty, the website that buys a billboard in Times Square and provides snow plows to clear Boston streets. It donates to organizations fighting for racial equality and offers steamy content free to get people through Covid-19 shutdowns.

That supposedly “wholesome Pornhub” attracts 3.5 billion visits a month, more than Netflix, Yahoo or Amazon. Pornhub rakes in money from almost three billion ad impressions a day. One ranking lists Pornhub as the 10th-most-visited website in the world.

Yet there’s another side of the company: Its site is infested with rape videos. It monetizes child rapes, revenge pornography, spy cam videos of women showering, racist and misogynist content, and footage of women being asphyxiated in plastic bags. A search for “girls under18” (no space) or “14yo” leads in each case to more than 100,000 videos. Most aren’t of children being assaulted, but too many are.

To read the full story by Nicholas Kristof on The New York Times: Click Here

‘Black gold’

November 19, 2020

For the past decade, Mikayla Lowe Davis has been braiding and styling hair for her customers.

“The first thing people see a lot of times is our hair,” she says. “We have to represent our crown and be confident with wearing it.”

The 29-year-old stylist, who owns Mikki Styles Salon, is braiding in synthetic hair to the head of a customer in Arlington, Texas, a process which takes several hours and costs upwards of $115.

“It helps them to become more empowered,” Lowe Davis says of her customers. “It gives them confidence when they can see how beautiful they are, how beautiful their hair is.”

Lowe Davis has a degree in biology, but the creative side of the hair industry drew her in. She sources products at beauty supply stores — a fixture of many African American communities.

“Black women spend so much money on hair care products,” says Frankesha Watkins, an MBA-educated entrepreneur who owns the BPolished Beauty Supply store in Arlington. “I learned that from this pandemic, no matter what’s going on, people want their hair to be nice.”

 

To read the full story by Rebecca Wright, Ivan Watson and Isaac Yee on CNN: Click Here