Jeffrey Epstein, the wealthy financier convicted 11 years ago of soliciting minors for prostitution, now stands accused of preying on children in a manner that is disturbingly familiar to sex-trafficking experts: targeting society’s most vulnerable.
A federal indictment unsealed Monday charges that Epstein “sexually exploited and abused dozens of minor girls,” some as young as 14, at his homes in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Florida, and other locations. The indictment describes the victims as "particularly vulnerable to exploitation."
Epstein has pleaded not guilty.
"As far as I've been able to find from my investigation, vulnerable children and girls are all he targets. The more vulnerable and the younger the better," said private investigator Mike Fisten.
Fisten has been working for more than a decade with attorney Brad Edwards, who represents 14 of Epstein's accusers.
"The only way his scheme works is to recruit the most vulnerable girls. First of all that age group he targets, 13-17, is particularly vulnerable and he knows that ... and then the most susceptible of falling into his trap are the ones who don't have a parent in the household or a good support system and who need money," said Edwards. "Two to three to four hundred dollars to any 13-year-old in America is a lot of money, and you dangle it to those who've never seen that much money in one place at one time, and he realized you can get someone to do almost anything. ... Now he's created a very solid spider web of girls whose vulnerabilities he can prey on."
In a November investigation led by Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown, about 80 victims were identified as having been abused by Epstein from 2001 to 2006. The Herald spoke with eight of the accusers. It found:
Most of the girls came from disadvantaged families, single-parent homes or foster care. Some had experienced troubles that belied their ages: They had parents and friends who committed suicide; mothers abused by husbands and boyfriends; fathers who molested and beat them. One girl had watched her stepfather strangle her 8-year-old stepbrother, according to court records obtained by the Herald. Many of the girls were one step away from homelessness.
"He preyed upon children who were already vulnerable," said Martina Vandenberg, founder and president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, about the latest allegations involving Epstein. "He preyed upon children in the foster care system. He preyed upon children already being abused."
Perpetrators of sex trafficking often target victims who are poor, lack support networks and are living on the margins of society, experts say. They especially target children with a history of abuse and neglect, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Research shows:
- One in 7 endangered runaways were likely sex trafficking victims, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
- 85% of girls involved in the commercial sexual exploitation of children were previously involved in the child welfare system, according to a 2014 Department of Justice report.
- A 2016 study on risk factors for child sex trafficking in the U.S. found participants who identified as a racial or ethnic minority were more than twice as likely to have been trafficked as a child than white participants.
- LGBTQ youth are at particular risk for sex trafficking: Up to 40% of homeless young people identify as LGBTQ. They are 3 to 7 times more likely to engage in "survival sex" to meet basic needs such as shelter and food.
"Bias and discrimination end up equaling secrecy and alienation, and when you don't have support systems ... that often creates risk factors that people who inflict harm on others are seeking out," said Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
Many of the children have experienced trauma before. They have been taught to believe their bodies are not their own, that they have no voice, experts say.
"After years in foster care, I didn’t think anyone would want to take care of me unless they were paid. So, when my pimp expected me to make money to support ‘the family,’ it made sense to me," one survivor said in a 2018 report by ECPAT, a group aimed at ending sexual exploitation of children.
According to the Herald, one lawsuit says Epstein used a modeling agency to recruit girls as young as 13 from Europe, Ecuador and Brazil.
"Like many sexual predators, Epstein had a keen sense for ferreting out the girls’ vulnerabilities and using these weak points for his own sexual gratification," claimed feminist scholar Janice Raymond in the 2019 article "Immunity Incorporated: All the Injustice that Jeffrey Epstein Can Buy," published in "Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and Violence." "He chose girls he thought would not be believed if they told what had happened to them."
Experts say immigrants are often repeatedly told from the time they get to the USA that law enforcement is corrupt, and traffickers reinforce that notion by saying they are bribing police.
There are hundreds of thousands of human trafficking victims in the U.S., estimates Polaris, a non-profit that operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Experts say traffickers and pimps target places where emotionally vulnerable girls can be found, such as group homes, shelters and rehab programs. Experts say the industry has also grown because perpetrators have gained more access to victims through the Internet.
"Traffickers are very good a spotting these potential victims through social media," said Donna Hughes, a leading international researcher on human trafficking. "They give the girls the things they are longing for: someone to talk to who will listen to them at length. Someone who will take their side when they describe conflicts with family, friends or school. They give them gifts, things the girls could never afford. They take them to places they’ve never been before."
Names like Epstein and Robert Kraft, the New England Patriots owner who earlier this year was linked to a prostitution ring and has pleaded not guilty, lead to explosive headlines, but experts say the sex trafficking industry could not thrive without the participation and complicity of many more.
"Increased arrests of traffickers, pimps and sex buyers is the way to protect girls from being trafficked," Hughes said, rebuking what she says is perpetrators' use of "wealth and influence" to avoid tough sentencing.
"We need to educate people that there is always harm to the victims. We make the mistake of reading about 'horrible cases,' and then thinking the other cases are just 'choice' or something that should be private activity. There just isn’t a big gap between them for what happens to victims."
Courtney Wild, who says she was 14 when Epstein's abuse began, shared a statement with Edwards after his arrest.
"I have fought so long to finally see Epstein brought to justice. I didn’t believe the news that he was arrested until I saw him in custody with my own eyes. I want my voice to encourage others to come forward," she said. "We are stronger together."
You may also be interested in:
- Who is Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire charged with sex trafficking girls as young as 14?
- Sex trafficking, prostitution is anything but a 'victimless crime'
- Robert Kraft case highlights risks facing Asian women
The FBI has urged Epstein victims to call 1-800-CALL-FBI.
If you've seen what could be human trafficking or if you need help, the National Human Trafficking Hotline 1-888-373-7888 is confidential, toll-free and available 24/7 in more than 200 languages. Text: “BeFree” (233733). Chat: humantraffickinghotline.org.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Jeffrey Epstein allegedly chose his sex trafficking victims