Heartbreaking abuse of children demands a major shift in outlook

April 20, 2023 5:00 am
Demonstrators protest Arizona's new immigration law outside the Arizona Capitol building on April 23, 2010. Protesters said the law will lead to racial profiling and civil rights abuses against the Hispanic community. Photo by John Moore | Getty Images

Hundreds of immigrant rights advocates participate in a rally in New York City. Recent news about human trafficking and exploited children has prompted both finger pointing and soul searching. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images).

News stories about the exploitation of children are particularly upsetting. They violate our most basic protective instincts. How could our society tolerate the systematic abuse of the very young? Yet recent reports on the  trafficking of minors in the United States force us to confront our complicity in a grotesque injustice.

The blockbuster New York Times investigation of the trafficking of migrant youth, whose forced labor is padding the profits of our country’s biggest corporations, has prompted Congressional hearings and a reexamination of the Biden administration’s handling of unaccompanied migrant children.

Another, unrelated report, “Criminalized Survivors: Today’s Abuse to Prison Pipeline” by Yasmin Vafa and Rebecca Epstein, released last week by the Georgetown Center on Gender Justice & Opportunity, focuses on how girls who survive abuse are blamed and criminalized for being sex trafficked and arrested and imprisoned for acting in self-defense and even for reporting their abuse.

To think of children confronting such horrific circumstances at the very beginning of their lives is sickening. And then to think that our society compounds the injury by, in the case of migrants, turning a blind eye to our economic dependence on child labor and, in the case of sex-trafficked girls, by arresting and incarcerating victims, is truly awful.

The authors of the Georgetown report coined the term “abuse to prison pipeline” in 2015 to describe the cycle in which girls, especially girls of color, in the United States are punished for the gender-based violence they endure and sent into the prison system without access to support to help them recover from their trauma.

Thanks to that 2015 report, which gained champions including President Barack Obama, public awareness of the injustice of the criminalization of child victims. The rise of the #MeToo movement and #BlackLivesMatter brought further attention to the injustice.

As a result, the report’s authors say, there has been a decline in arrests of children for prostitution and even in the use of the term “child prostitute” — which, they point out, wrongly implies that children who are trafficked are the agents of their own exploitation.

But other problems persist. Girls who are victims of abuse are still frequently arrested for running away and truancy — acts that are often committed in response to abuse or trauma. Black children are more than five times more likely to be picked up for prostitution or “criminalized vice” than white children. Overall, the criminal justice system still fails to recognize the violence, coercion, threats and manipulation of children who are frequently held accountable for criminal acts that are really perpetrated against them by their abusers. High-profile stories of young women who have been sentenced to long prison terms for killing their rapists have shed some light on the terrible double bind for these victims.

The Georgetown report makes a series of policy recommendations. It celebrates state laws limiting the transfer of youth into the adult legal system and ending the incarceration of children for status offenses including running away or truancy. It holds up models of alternative sentencing for survivors of domestic violence and new efforts to take into account trauma and adverse childhood experiences.

In addition, the report calls for new investments in preventing gender-based violence in the U.S., a movement to acknowledge and change the unwarranted suspicion with which girls who report abuse are treated, protecting victims from harsh sentences for acts related to their victimization, and recognition of the disproportionately high rates of abuse of girls of color, LGBTQ youth, immigrants and children who experience other types of adversity.

There is also a larger societal issues we all must address.

Political rhetoric that dehumanizes people — whether immigrant children who are forced to labor for U.S. corporations or incarcerated girls who have been sex trafficked  — is driving terrible public policy.

In this week’s House hearing on child labor trafficking, Ariana Figueroa of States Newsroom’s DC Bureau reports that Republican Rep. Clay Higgins of Louisiana “questioned whether unaccompanied migrant children are really children, since some are teenagers.”

“As compassionate children of God, every American wants to just hug that child and care for that child, but that’s not the reality, America,” Higgins said. “What they’re talking about here is not a lost and abandoned and frightened small child. The vast majority of the so-called children, unaccompanied children, are actually undocumented, illegal young adults.”

Higgins is trying to paint a scary picture, using language to try to cancel out compassion and cover up the reality that exploited teens and pre-teens like those described by The New York Times do, indeed, deserve our compassion and protection.

Wisconsin’s own Republican Rep. Glenn Grothman, who chairs the House Oversight & Accountability Subcommittee on National Security, the Border, and Foreign Affairs, spoke at the same hearing, alternating between using the word “children” and the dehumanizing term “aliens” as he excoriated the Biden administration’s immigration policies at the U.S.-Mexico border which, he said, “have led to historic encounters of unaccompanied alien children that have overwhelmed [the Office of Refugee Resettlement] and endanger migrant children.” 

Tough talk from politicians about “aliens” and criminals seeks to dehumanize people so we don’t have to empathize with them or take in the reality of their abuse. They aren’t really children. They aren’t even really human (they’re “aliens”).

All of that is a smokescreen to try to cover up the shock of realizing that, as citizens of the U.S., we are complicit in a system of institutionalized child abuse. 

There is no more egregious injustice than the “abuse-to-prison pipeline.” That phrase captures the terrible truth, that people who are already suffering unimaginable hardship are those most likely to be targeted for further mistreatment. 

Instead of heaping punishment on the already oppressed and trying to convince ourselves that we are somehow different and more deserving, we need to recognize that we are all human beings who deserve to be treated with equal justice, compassion, and dignity as part of the same human family. 

For the sake of our own humanity, we need to protect the children. 


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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.