In child sex-trafficking case, court says no knowledge of age needed

A federal appeals court held Friday that prosecutors did not need to prove a defendant in a child sex-trafficking case knew his victim was under 18, if the defendant had “reasonable opportunity” to observe the underage victim.

In a case of first impression for the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the court rejected a bid by Devon Robinson to overturn his child sex-trafficking conviction. Robinson claimed the government had not proven he was aware that the girl wa s underage at the time of the crime of which he was accused.

Robinson was convicted in 2010 of trafficking a 17-year-old girl. She testified at Robinson’s trial in Brooklyn federal court that he was her boyfriend, not her pimp, and said she told “everybody” at the time that she was 19, according to the ruling.

The jury convicted Robinson of two counts of sex trafficking of a minor, and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. On appeal, he said the government could not prove he knew the girl’s age and therefore had not proven he recklessly disregarded this information.

Robinson and the government offered competing interpretations of Section 1591 of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.

That section was amended in 2008 to enable prosecution to convict someone of child sex trafficking if he had acted in “knowing, or in reckless disregard of the fact … that the person has not attained the age of 18 years and will be caused to engage in a commercial sex act.”

Robinson argued that the government had to prove that he had ample opportunity to observe the girl, and that he had recklessly disregarded her underage status. Prosecutors countered that they only had to prove one or the other.

The 2nd Circuit agreed with the government.

“Viewed in context, the most natural reading of this provision is that proof that the defendant had a reasonable opportunity to observe the victim may substitute for proof that the defendant knew the victim’s underage status,” U.S. Circuit Judge Jose Cabranes wrote in the opinion. He was joined by Judge Chester Straub.

In a brief concurring opinion, Judge Amalya Kearse said she would affirm Robinson’s conviction but was not persuaded by the majority’s interpretation of Section 1591.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn declined to comment. Curtis Farber, an attorney who represented Robinson on appeal and has since been appointed as a judge in the Kings County Criminal Court, could not be immediately reached for comment.

The case is U.S. v. Robinson, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, No. 11-301.

For the U.S.: Sylvia Shweder and David James of the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York



Published in: on December 2, 2012 at 3:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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Oceanside couple arrested for sex trafficking a child

Girl grew up and came back to seek justice

A Mexican girl sent to America for a better life never saw the inside of a classroom. Instead, she became a human-trafficking victim in Oceanside.

For nearly two years, the 12-year-old was raped repeatedly, beaten, sold for sex and forced to work for no pay by a couple related to her, law-enforcement sources said.

The alleged traffickers, a husband and wife, were arrested Thursday on Brooks Street near Maxson Street by the North County Human Trafficking Task Force. That coalition includes the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, Oceanside police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations team.

Inez Martinez Garcia, 43, and her husband, Marcial Garcia Hernandez, 45, were booked on 13 felony counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child under age 14, the sheriff’s department. Both immigrated from Mexico and are legal permanent residents of the United States.

“There have been some real bad cases, but this is one of the worst cases we’ve had,” said Sgt. Joe Mata of the sheriff’s department. “This was so important because there are so many victims and nothing gets done.”

The victim, now an adult, came forward two and a half years ago with details of the abuses she suffered after she was smuggled into the country. Her name and current age have not been released because of the sexual nature of the crime and authorities’ ongoing investigation.

Once at the Hernandez home, she was forced to care for the couple’s three young children, cook and clean, said sheriff’s deputy George Crysler, the case investigator. She was also forced to have sex with Hernandez and occasionally sold as a sex slave, he said.

In addition, the suspects allegedly made the girl lie about her age to get a job at a restaurant and then kept her wages.

The victim was beaten whenever she refused to participate in sex or did not complete her work to her traffickers’ satisfaction, said Crysler, who added that she was “under the constant threat of physical abuse.”

The captivity lasted 21 months before the girl was beaten so severely that someone reported the situation to authorities. Child Protective Services removed the victim from the home and eventually returned her to her family in Mexico, Mata said.

At the time of the trafficking, the child did not have permission to be in the United States. She has legal status today, according to the sheriff’s department.

In the past decade, law-enforcement agencies and nongovernmental groups across the country have focused on human trafficking and strived to increase awareness of the crime. Human trafficking — labor and sex — rivals drug trafficking as the second most profitable criminal enterprise behind the arms trade.

National and international leaders have also been paying more attention to the crime, which they said has ensnared tens of millions of people. A study released this week by a San Diego State University researcher estimated that 31 percent of unauthorized immigrants who were surveyed had experienced labor trafficking, often including sexual abuse.

Experts said foreigners are often lured to the U.S. with promises of a better life, but find themselves sold for sex or working in terrible conditions with little to no pay. Confinement can be physical as well as psychological.

Trafficking victims can also be U.S. citizens — including those enslaved by gangs, which have become involved in sex trafficking in recent years, said Don Stump, executive director of North County Lifeline. His organization provides counseling and mental-health services to victims of trafficking and child abuse, among other clients.

Lifeline is helping the victim in the Oceanside case, but Stump said he could not give specifics to protect the victim and maintain her privacy.

“She has been a very cooperative and forthright client in working with law enforcement because she wants to see some justice,” said Stump, whose organization hosted a daylong conference about trafficking on Friday in Oceanside. “The biggest challenge right now with human trafficking is making sure the services are in place for the victims, but also making sure the community is aware of the specifics of trafficking right in their own neighborhoods.”

Mata of the sheriff’s department said when the young woman returned to the U.S., she was encouraged to come forward by someone close to her. She had begun to experience flashbacks and showed symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.

She sought help from the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition, which works with trafficking victims. The group, based in National City, helped reopen her juvenile case and notify authorities about the abuse she had suffered as a child.

Marisa Ugarte, director of the coalition, said her organization maintains victims’ confidentiality. She did say the survivor in this case is no longer a client.

“There are many, many cases like this one,” Ugarte said. “The most important part now is that she is here and she is going to get justice.”

One challenge for groups that help trafficking victims is that unauthorized immigrants, including children, are often returned to their native country even though they may qualify for legal status as a victim of trafficking or other crimes. In such situations, including the Oceanside case, the alleged abusers are not prosecuted.

Hernandez and Garcia are in jail and will be arraigned early next week. A spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s office said it is too soon to comment on the case.




Mom, Grandma Accused of Pimping 14-Year-Old Houston Girl

In a disturbing story out of Houston this week, a 14-year-old girl told the police she was being forced into prostitution. The pimps she named? Her own mother and grandmother. And while the idea of a grandmother as a pimp may be strange to the point of almost comical, familial trafficking of teen girls is far from rare.

Elizabeth Buford, her daughter Alicia Melchor, and her 14-year-old granddaughter lived together in a rented motel room in the Houston area. They paid their rent on time, but the motel soon began to receive complaints from other tenants that there was a steady stream of people going  in and out of the room at all hours of the day and night. When police investigated, they found evidence to indicate Buford and Melchor had been forcing their grand daughter/daughter into prostitution, possibly since she was 11 years old. The money the teen was paid to have sex with several men a night went to support the older women’s drug habit and to pay for basic living expenses.

Melchor claims the forced prostitution charges are a lie, and that her daughter had been in her father’s custody until recently. However, the teen told police her mother and grandmother had been selling her for sex for years. The two women were eventually arrested at the motel where they lived for compelling a minor into prostitution and possession of heroin. No word yet as to whether human trafficking charges will be brought as well.


Ask Your Representative to Support H.R. 5575: Combat Child Sex Trafficking

The Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act (TDVSA), which was introduced by U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) aims to address the significant issue of American children being trafficked for sex in the U.S. While existing legislation has provided tools and resources for children trafficked into the U.S. from other countries, American kids have traditionally been overlooked. The TDVSA would help fill that gap by providing much needed resources for victim services and law enforcement investigations.

The TDVSA passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on August 5, 2010. Now, it must also pass the House of Representatives. Please, take a moment to contact your Representative and ask him or her to support or co-sponsor H.R. 5575, the House version of the bill.


Susan Sarandon Speaks Out Against Child Sex Trafficking

Susan Sarandon’s career has surged this year. She’ll appear in Oliver Stone’s coming movie “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” just wrapped the Duplass Brothers comedy “Jeff Who Lives at Home,” and will begin work this coming Monday on the HBO pilot “The Miraculous Year” with director Kathryn Bigelow. She also received an Emmy nomination for her performance opposite Al Pacino in HBO’s April telefilm “You Don’t Know Jack.” In addition to her acting work, she’s lending her voice to causes she finds important, such as the eradication of child sex trafficking.

At a press conference this afternoon at the Morgans Hotel Penthouse, Sarandon talked about the importance of educating the public about the issue, saying that “unless you demand a change, governments won’t suddenly have a consciousness raising and decide to change a system that is so deeply rooted into these countries and our country, too.”

An estimated 1.2 million children annually are exploited in the U.S. and international sex trade, according to ECPAT, a network of groups and individuals working to end the sexual exploitation of children for commercial purposes. Starting August 2, ECPAT is helping to support a petition on the subject at The Body Shop stores and online calling for new legal protection for children under age 18.

“I chose very carefully the groups that I talk about and will put my reputation on the line for,” Sarandon said. “You get a big bang for your buck with this group because you know where the money is going.”

Also at the press conference was Somaly Mam, a Cambodian human rights activist who was abandoned as a child in the mid-70’s during the Pol Pot regime and sold into prostitution. As an adult, she has rescued, rehabilitated and provided shelter, education and medical care for thousands of girls in Southeast Asia through her self-named foundation.

Mam was profiled as Glamour magazine’s 2006 Woman of the Year by Mariane Pearl, the widow of slain Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl. She was also lauded as one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2009 by Angelina Jolie (who portrayed Mariane Pearl in the 2007 film “A Mighty Heart”). “My support, my energy, everything comes from the girls [that she rescues] and also my great staff at the Foundation,” Mam said.

Of her friendship with Sarandon, Mam said, “Susan always make me laugh when we have lunch. She takes care of me and protects me.”

About Mam, Sarandon said, “I’m grateful for her example. When I’m freaking out about some stupid little thing and I get a call from her about something that really is a big thing, it puts my life in perspective.”

In addition to Sarandon, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Laura Dern, Rob Lowe and Uma Thurman also support efforts to stop child sex trafficking.


Bill to shield child prostitutes touted in Senate

When a young girl finds herself out on the street, selling her body to pay her pimp or because she has a drug addiction, it’s not prostitution — it’s coercion, abuse, slavery.

That’s the premise behind a new bill making its way through the state Senate that would protect children from being prosecuted for the crime of prostitution. The proposed “Safe Harbor” bill creates the presumption that children and teens who engage in prostitution are victims of sexual exploitation.

“They are coerced or forced into this trade, and they should be treated as victims instead of criminals,” said state Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, who sponsored Senate Bill 153.

“The big thing is, this needs to be brought up and it needs to be talked about. It can’t be swept under the rug.”

Specifically, the bill says anyone under the age of 16 cannot be prosecuted for crimes of prostitution. For 16- and 17-year-olds facing prostitution charges, “there shall be a presumption that the actor was coerced into committing such offense by another person.”

Kane said he hopes to have a vote on the bill before the Senate’s current session ends May 5.

The bill has faced some opposition. In testimony to the Select Committee on Children in Hartford, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane spoke against the bill, which he argued “seeks to address a problem that does not exist in the state of Connecticut.” He went on to state that “the Division of Justice is not in the business of prosecuting the innocent victims of human trafficking” and notes that under existing state law, children under 16 cannot be prosecuted for prostitution because they cannot legally consent to sex at that age.

Advocates of the proposed Safe Harbor bill agree the state has not had many cases of minors arrested for prostitution. However, they say the legislation will do more than just protect minors from being prosecuted for crimes of which they are victim, it will also raise awareness about the problem of child sex trafficking and exploitation.

“The goal is to intervene in (the victims’) lives and make available services to let them know they have another choice, to let them know they do have rights, that the law works in their favor,” said Kathy Maskell, U.S. advocacy director for New Haven-based Love 146, an organization that fights child sex slavery and exploitation at home and around the globe.


Children get recruited into the sex trade at alarmingly young ages. The average age that a girl enters the world of prostitution is 13 years old. Child victims face lower life expectancies stemming from the devastating consequences of sex trafficking: depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, physical abuse, risk of suicide, sexually transmitted disease. They have a greater chance of being murdered during their lifetimes.

At Love 146’s safe house in the Philippines for female victims of sex trafficking, survivors expressed deeply troubling self-images as a result of their harrowing ordeals.

“I feel like a dog. I feel like dirt. I could never return home, I feel worthless. These are the words they use to describe themselves,” Maskell says. “I don’t think it would be a stretch to say U.S.-born victims would feel the same way.”

Supporters of the bill say the problem of child sex trafficking is not relegated to foreign countries; they say sexual exploitation of children happens right here in the United States, even here in Connecticut. Since 2008, the state Department of Children and Families has identified 25 youths in Connecticut as victims of child sex trafficking, according to testimony in support of the bill by Connecticut Voices for Children.

Also in 2008, two men were sentenced in federal court for their roles in prostitution rings that had victims in Connecticut and New York. Dennis Paris was sentenced to 30 years in prison for prostituting minors as young as 14 years old in the Hartford area. Authorities said Paris recruited young girls from troubled backgrounds, some of whom were addicted to drugs. Corey Davis was convicted of trafficking more than 20 females, including a 12-year-old girl, and forcing them to work as prostitutes and strippers.

Experts say those most at-risk for being coerced into prostitution are child runaways and victims of sexual or physical abuse. But the reality is that sexual exploitation of children through prostitution can happen anywhere, at any time, according to Maskell.

“Because of the Internet, it really does open it up to anyone in any socio-economic community,” she says.

A number of local nonprofit organizations, state agencies and youth advocates have banded together in support of S.B. 153, including the state Office of Victim Advocate, the Connecticut Commission on Children, Love 146, Connecticut Voices for Children, ECPAT-USA, the Essex-based Paul and Lisa Program, and the Clinton-based Barnaba Institute.

Alexis Taylor Litos, executive director of the Barnaba Institute, says even though not many minors get arrested for prostitution in the state, children who are exploited through sex trafficking often get picked up for other offences. Instead of getting intervention and the help they need to get out danger, these kids get lost in the legal system, she says. Being treated like a criminal sends victims spiraling deeper into despair.

“It is instilling that self-blame and making them feel it is their fault,” Litos says.

In some cases, she adds, the teens give false identification to police to appear older. Litos says better training in the area of sex-trafficking and sexual exploitation of children would enable first responders to do a better job of identifying red flags and clues that a child or young teen is being abused or trafficked.

Of all the people who went before the state Select Committee on Children or sent letters to express support for the “Safe Harbor” bill, the most profound voice belongs to an 18-year-old Connecticut woman, who herself was a victim of sexual exploitation. In a letter to the committee, the woman wrote that she was a scared kid who ran away from home and ended up trapped in a life of prostitution by the age of 14.

“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into to. I have been raped and beaten many times and I still have these memories that will be with me for the rest of my life. I was 14 years old. I did not try to tell anyone because I was scared,” the unidentified woman wrote.

The woman said she got help and was able to escape the world of prostitution, but it was hard.

“I just wish that everyone that goes through this can get the support that they need rather than a jail sentence,” she wrote.


I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced

I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced : the title of the book says it all. The book is the autobiography of Nujood Ali, a Yemeni third grader, divorcee, international human rights activist, and winner of Glamour Magazine’s Woman of the Year award. That’s a pretty impressive resume for someone who is still years away from a driver’s license. But if there is one thing Nujood has proved in her life, it’s that she’s not your average kid.

When Nujood was merely 10 years old, well before the age of puberty, her family forced her to marry a man in his 30s. At her wedding, Nujood sobbed in the corner, terrified of what would happen to her and miserable at the thought of leaving her family to live with a stranger. The wedding night was even worse. Despite a promise that Nujood’s husband made to her father not to have sex with her until she started menstruating, he forced himself on her the very first night they were married. After that, he forced her to drop out of school. He also began physically and emotionally abusing her regularly, and it wasn’t too long before Nujood had had enough.

She had heard about divorce, and had heard that judges were the ones with the ability to grant a divorce. So with little idea of where she was going, she snuck away from her husband, jumped into the back of a taxi, and asked to be driven to the nearest courthouse. Once there, she demanded to speak to a judge — any judge. When one finally emerged, imagine his surprise to see a tiny, determined child standing before him firmly stating, “I want a divorce!”


Request for New Trial for Imprisoned Child Trafficking Survivor Denied

A petition from child trafficking survivor Sara Kruzan for a new murder trial has been denied by a California judge. Sarah was only 16 years old when she killed her pimp who had sexually enslaved her since the age of 11. She was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole — a devastating, hopeless sentence for a victimized child. You can stand up for justice and join the thousands of members who are supporting freedom for Sara Kruzan.

When Sara met G.G., the 31-year-old man who would become her pimp, she was 11. Sara’s mom struggled with drug addiction, so when G.G. would drive Sara and her friends to the roller skating rink or the mall, it felt like having a real parent around. He gave Sara presents and told her she was special — so special, that she should never give sex away for free. He convinced her she was a product that men would pay a lot of money for. G.G. groomed Sara like this for two years before he raped her. By then, his control was complete and he forced her into prostitution. Sara and the other girls who G.G. exploited were out on the streets from 6pm to 6am, every night. Twelve hours a night, seven days a week, for three years, Sara was raped by strangers so G.G. could profit.

In 1994, a rival pimp told Sara that if she didn’t kill G.G., he would kill her. So Sara shot the man who had held her captive and tortured her for five years our of fear that another pimp would kill her if she didn’t. It was the action of a frightened, traumatized, trafficked child.

At her original trial, no one presented any information about intimate partner abuse, child sex trafficking, or the rest of the trauma Sara would have experienced in her young life. There were no expert witnesses to speak on Sara’s behalf or explain to the jury why a child with no criminal record would shoot a grown man in a motel room. Therefore, the jury saw only a killer and a raped, and not the incredibly complex system of power and control which G.G. had exercised over Sarah since she was a little girl. And so they found her guilty and she was sentenced to life without parole.

Despite today’s disappointing news, Sara and her lawyers are refusing to give up hope that she can be free again.

Human Rights Watch and the National Center for Youth Law have both advocated for Kruzan’s freedom in the past. Now, you can also take a stand against this injustice. Take a moment to sign the petition demanding justice for Sara. Victims of human trafficking deserve treatment and help for the trauma they’ve suffered. Sara Kruzan has paid for the actions she was coerced into as a child more that she should have already. Now, it’s time to set her free.

Fighting Child Sex Tourism By Giving “Megan’s Law” Global Reach

Megan’s Law was enacted after seven-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and murdered by a neighbor in 1994. Now law in all States, it requires convicted sex offenders to register their whereabouts with the government. Offender info goes into a public database so you and I can see just what the Joneses did next door. A little Big Brothery? Sure. But despite the ACLU complaints about privacy violations, most Americans would rather know who’s lurking on the other side of the fence if it protects their children.

But what about other people’s kids? What about kids in countries like Thailand, Cambodia, and Mexico, where sex tourism is a growing industry and Americans are loyal customers? According to World Vision, Americans make up 25% of the world’s child sex tourists.

In case you don’t know what child sex tourism (CST) is, and so you don’t have to read the vomit-inducing nastiness I found while researching it, here’s the basic U.S. definition: “…one form of ‘demand’ for victims of child sex trafficking. It involves people who travel from their own country…to another country where they engage in commercial sex acts with children.” Basically, the creepers take a little international vacay just so they can purchase sex with kids. Not exactly the happiest place on Earth …

Now CA Rep. Dan Lungren wants to give Big Brother a baseball bat and take Megan’s Law to an international level. Lungren wants convicted sex offenders to notify U.S. officials of any international travel plans 21 days before departure. The countries on the itinerary then get notified so officials there can keep an eye on the visitors’ dealings. The ACLU is opposed to this idea too, saying it would add new restrictions to folks who’ve already served their time. They fear the bill will get passed anyway because who’s going to say “no” to protecting children from predators?

The real hitch may actually be coordinating with other countries, whose governments and cultures may not define “sex offender” the way we do or who won’t be equipped to use the information. So just how effective can the bill be? What about “sex offenders” like a 19-year-old who had sex with his 17-year-old girlfriend whose parents disapproved and had him arrested for statutory rape? Is it fair for that guy to have to report his travel plans for the rest of his life? Should the Feds just leave the work up to private investigators like Tiny Stars?

I don’t know the answers, but I do know that I’m happy the U.S. government has the problem of CST on the table. It needs to be seen. And it needs to be stopped, somehow. This isn’t typical loud, obnoxious American tourists ruining a lovely international getaway. This is ruining children’s lives. I’d vacation with Joan Rivers if it would put these creepers on a one-way plane to jail.

Photo Credit: Boa-sorte&Careca


The New Hotbed of Human Trafficking Is … Ohio

Those of you who thought Ohio was all about rock n’ roll, amazing chili, and a seriously unhealthy football obsession may want to think again. A new report conducted by the Trafficking in Persons Study Commission found that 1800 people are trafficked in Ohio every year. This includes 800 immigrants who are exploited in commercial sex and factory work, as well as about 1000 American-born children who are forced into prostitution. Who would have thought that Ohio would be such a hotebed of human trafficking?

But why Ohio, whose largest city, Columbus, is dwarfed by neighboring Chicago? How can a place that sounds and appears so wholesome be responsible for forcing a thousand children into sexual slavery each year? The report cites weak laws on human trafficking, a growing demand for cheap labor, and Ohio’s proximity to the Canadian border as the key reasons modern-day slavery thrives in the state. I’m going to take a metaphorical highlighter to that word “demand,” because that is the key to the human trafficking crisis.

Like many other places in the U.S., Ohio has a growing immigrant population, including those who have migrated legally, illegally but voluntarily, and involuntarily. Undocumented migrants are at increased risk for trafficking and exploitation, and in Ohio about 800 of them were found exploited in factories, agriculture, constriction sites, and brothels. Often, migrants are trafficked by high organized criminal networks who transport the victims into and around the U.S. They are the criminals, but it’s the demand for cheap goods and food and for commercial sex that create an industry for trafficked immigrant workers.