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Arizona Opinion: Epstein is dead, sex trafficking is not

Arizona Opinion: Epstein is dead, sex trafficking is not

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The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.

Jeffrey Epstein may be dead, but trafficking and sexual abuse of women and girls is not.

As an attorney to survivors of abuse and trafficking, I’ve seen no bounds to who is capable of sexual abuse and exploitation. A church leader, a gang member, a millionaire and a nondescript neighbor all can — and have — chosen these crimes with no regard for the lives they traumatize.

In the case of Epstein, at least two of the victims were just 14 when they were sexually abused yet he was allowed to plead guilty to minor state charges. It was only when investigative journalists brought the injustice to light that he was indicted for heftier federal crimes, including sex trafficking. The fact that Epstein’s money and insider relationships turned a normally victim-centric system on its head adds an extra layer of outrage.

People commonly ask what they can do to help with human trafficking. In fact, there are actions we can take. The actions I recommend are not as dramatic as the crimes we read about, but they are vital and urgently needed.

First, treat victims with dignity no matter their age, financial status or other barrier they face. Epstein targeted young women and girls who were especially vulnerable — unlikely to report and unlikely to be believed. This tends to be true for most traffickers. We should question the justice system when victims aren’t given a fair investigation or prosecution. Unfortunately, it happens too often when it comes to sex crimes.

Second, support struggling families so they can safely stay together. Almost every trafficking survivor I’ve represented spent their adolescent years in the foster care system. Many experienced physical or sexual abuse by a relative or caregiver, most grew up with mental illness or substance abuse in their homes. We are recognizing the importance of drug and mental health treatment, but not fast enough. Quality child care assistance matters. Increased access and investments for these services is key to family stability and to child safety.

Third, there are kids who cannot be safe in their own homes, and they deserve to be a community priority. One study showed that 60% of victims of sex trafficking had histories with child welfare systems. The stories I hear are familiar. A teenager ran away from a group home, was relieved when she thought she found a caring relationship, but before long she found herself in a daily routine of sexual abuse and exploitation. We can volunteer as foster parents, and be nonstop advocates for Kinship Programs so grandparents and other relatives can step in more often. Case workers need to be supported so they can give each child the attention needed. And we should continue to strengthen transitional services so that as kids become adults they have more options to maintain independence and safe housing.

Fourth, preventing homelessness is critical to keeping kids safe because kids who are homeless have a greater risk of abuse and exposure to violence and trafficking. Our state ranked third least affordable in the country this year. It’s no surprise that the federal runaway and homeless youth system is strengthening its focus on anti-trafficking efforts, including in Arizona. The legal center I lead partners with a social service agency right here in Tucson to provide legal services to trafficking survivors. Our housing crisis contributes to victimization.

Nothing happens in a vacuum in our society. We can allow for Jeffrey Epstein’s death to take up all the headlines, but I challenge us to work on preventing the next set of victims instead.

January Contreras is the CEO of Arizona Legal Women and Youth Services (ALWAYS), a lawyer to abuse and trafficking survivors, and a former prosecutor.

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