Photos & article by Shadan Kapri
It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.
A child falling into drugs, gangs or – worse yet – sexual exploitation.
Jana Jackson was one of those young girls who fell into the trap as a young teen. At a rally for survivors of sex trafficking in August, sponsored by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, she shared her story of fear, danger and ultimately freedom. Alive and pregnant at 23, she said at the rally that her goal is to help other girls escape the underground world of human trafficking.
Despite the dangers, “a cycle of sexual exploitation is thriving in our state,” said state Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D-Olympic Fields). “Most people are recruited into the sex trade as youth, and then they become trapped.”
Daria Mueller, associate director of policy for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said that human trafficking is a serious problem in Chicago that is underfunded and sometimes misunderstood.
Any minor sexually exploited through prostitution is considered a victim of human trafficking, according to federal laws.
Reliable figures are hard to come by because of the secretive and underground nature of the problem. But in response, lawmakers have passed new legislation in Illinois to help victims. In two months, the amendments to the Illinois Human Trafficking Laws will go into effect. According to the governor’s office, these will help prosecutors target those who exploit minors while offering greater protection to victims.
But the resources to help women and children once they leave prostitution are minimal or non-existent in every community in this state, according to End Demand, a statewide campaign striving to help victims of sex trafficking in Illinois.
To address this gap, End Demand released a statewide proposal for services, which include a safe home and drop-in center. Their proposed pilot program would give victims basic necessities like food, clothing, counseling, mentoring and support groups. Outreach with legal advocacy, employment and transportation assistance is also incorporated to help victims get back on their feet.
“The problem is that we are in a fiscal crisis in this city and state,” said Mueller. “We know what is needed in terms of services to help, but those services don’t exist right now because of the shrinking budget.”
Mueller said that adding social services is essential in fighting human trafficking. But because of the economic downturn, “we can barely manage to keep existing programs afloat at this time.”
This creates a huge problem for victims who are given few options in life. Now the primary shelter available to children who are lured into prostitution is a safe haven called Anne’s House, run by the Salvation Army.
Rachel Leonor Ramirez, an organizer with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said that more affordable and permanent housing is necessary for women and children escaping prostitution. “If they don’t have a stable place to live it is so much harder to get other aspects of their life together.” Some may even say impossible.
In the meantime, advocates like Mueller and Ramirez continue to fight for better policies, programs and services for victims of the sex trade.
“Not every girl is lucky to get out alive,” Jackson said at the rally for sex trafficking victims in Chicago, “I’m a survivor.”