The sexual exploitation of children is as old as humanity — but in the age of the internet, said Jessica Munoz, the buying and selling is horrifyingly easy and fast.
Munoz is founder and president of Ho‘ola Na Pua, a nonprofit organization that advocates for and provides support to girls victimized by sex trafficking. In the past several months, work by the state Department of the Attorney General along with law enforcement partners in a sting initiative called Keiki Shield uncovered just how easily sex transactions can take place.
“There is a significant amount of people looking to buy sex from youth,” she said. “And just by putting out an advertisement on the internet, the response was pretty crazy.
“Accessibility is so easy. We tell parents, it’s no longer telling their kids, ‘Watch out for the stranger who’s lost his dog, who’s going to give you some candy or cookies, or watch for the white van.’ It’s really these kids are having smartphones at 9 years old. And the thing is, they’re not taught how to use them.”
The California native, now 36, worked as a nurse practitioner specializing in pediatric trauma, and her emergency-room experience convinced her that more intervention on behalf of young victims was crucial.
Ho‘ola Na Pua, with offices on the Central Union Church campus, has an annual operating budget of about $1 million for its programs. It’s now raising funds for Pearl Haven, a venue in an undisclosed location being renovated as a residential treatment facility.
Last fall the organization worked with the visitor industry to highlight clues employees can spot signaling that a young girl might be entrapped.
A trafficker is not always whom you’d suspect, Munoz said, and neither is the trafficked.
“We’ve predominantly been focused on females,” she acknowledged. “However, we’ve recently started working with some boys … national work being done actually shows that victimization of boys and girls is the same. But we’re just so far behind in recognizing this happening to males.”
Question: Do you think the media spotlight on sexual exploitation in the past few years has made leaders take the trafficking issue more seriously?
Answer: I have been engaged in the anti-trafficking space for 10 years and without a doubt over the past three years the level of awareness and advocacy for the issue has increased substantially not just locally, but nationally and around the globe.
One of the key components has been to expose why this problem exists, which is rooted in “demand.” If we didn’t have people looking to buy youth for sex, we wouldn’t have a child sex trafficking problem.
This past year, with the (Jeffrey) Epstein and R. Kelly cases exposing that some of the most wealthy and powerful are engaged in abusing children, that has helped tremendously in helping us explain to the community at large why trafficking is even a problem and continues to thrive.
Locally, there has been a focused initiative … to expose the level of demand we have in Hawaii for children to be bought and sold for sex. Because the media has been able to share the outcomes of these operations, the greater community is having a better understanding of the scope of the problem and understanding the need for a comprehensive response.
Q: Can you estimate what proportion of sex workers here were first brought into the business as children?
A: Not enough quantitative data for Hawaii specifically, but it’s safe to assume it’s consistent with national averages, which is especially high for domestic sex trafficking victims — where most are recruited and exploited as minors.
In study after study, 80-95% of people in prostitution are under the control of pimps … 75-95% were sexually abused as children. …
Q: Do you think the recent outreach to the travel industry will help to improve identification of trafficking? What changes are needed there?
A: It was a great first step to bring awareness and help leaders in the industry understand the reality of what’s occurring in their businesses. It’s important to first recognize that there is a problem and then decide to make it a priority to combat commercial sexual exploitation.
Next steps are to commit to training for employees and implementing policies, continuing the conversation within all layers of the travel industry, etc. Streamlined reporting to law enforcement is essential regardless if trafficking is confirmed or not. We must improve on reporting suspected cases to law enforcement that works so very hard to keep our community safe.
Q: What help do your youth need the most? What’s key to their restarting their lives?
A: Safety is the No. 1 need our youth have. Physical, emotional, and mental safety and security.
Our youth who have been exploited or are high risk for being exploited need to be empowered — empowered to make decisions and to live out the dreams they have had and continue to have.
(They need) consistent stable support from adults in their life — especially during transitional times (placements, programs, independent living); proper mental health intervention, adjunct therapies, and resources to help them process their trauma.
It’s not about restarting their life — they are learning how to keep living in light of what has happened to them. They are learning to not be defined by the things that have happened to them, to build an identity outside of being trafficked. …
We all struggle not to let labels define us. It’s the same thing for these youth. They struggle with a sense of shame and learning to be able to move past the shame. Our hope for our youth is for them to be able to move from survivor to thriving and living a healthy life with multiple layers of support. Healing is life-long.
Q: What reach has HNP had since it was founded?
A: Ho’ola Na Pua is committed to the prevention of sex trafficking and providing care for children who have been exploited. We work to not only provide direct service but to help create and support the systemic changes needed to end the exploitation of children. …
Since 2014, we have educated over 9,000 students with our in-school prevention program (includes Oahu, Hawaii island and Maui). We have educated over 7,000 professionals through training on identification, intervention, and responding to situations of trafficking; provided one-to-one mentoring and advocacy for over 30 youths through our Starfish Mentoring Program.
Through our HOKU group mentoring, which is in seven youth facilities (two on Hawaii island), we have reached over 300 youths with a program that builds resiliency and empowers them to move forward to pursue their dreams and healthy safe relationships. We have reached over 100,000 people from diverse sectors in direct outreach and contact within the community since 2014.
Q: Is there anything the Legislature should do in the coming session?
A: One, update trafficking laws to conform to best practices and legislation around the country.
Currently, (the nonprofit organization) Shared Hope scores Hawaii as a C (sharedhope.org/what-we-do/bring-justice/reportcards/#reportcards) … (based on) criminalization of domestic minor sex trafficking, criminal provisions addressing demand, criminal provisions for facilitators, criminal provisions for traffickers, protective provisions for child victims, criminal justice tools for investigation and prosecution.
Two, provide additional resources to law enforcement to address traffickers and reduce demand. Resources around a statewide coordinated response lead, under a statewide law enforcement entity, are essential for addressing prevention, intervention, enforcement, prosecution and recovery service delivery.
And provide more resources for service providers for both juvenile and adult survivors. Survivors of trafficking need longer-duration mental health services tailored to specific needs.
The issue of placement for juveniles and adults continues to remain a challenge. Short-term placement, along with longer-term, more comprehensive programming and placement, is essential.