No one is above the law.
Thankfully, that is the main message we can take from one of the most publicized scandals involving the sex-trafficking of minors. The end of that scandal came Tuesday in a Brooklyn, New York, courtroom with the sentencing of Ghislaine Maxwell, a predator who will serve 20 years behind bars for her role in helping convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein exploit young women.
Last December, a jury convicted Maxwell of sex trafficking and other charges; that, in turn, led to a judge issuing Maxwell's 20-year sentence on Tuesday. Maxwell's sentence may conclude the federal criminal proceedings against her, but it has ignited an unprecedented and proactive movement put into motion by the underage survivors who were victims of the sex trafficking ring overseen by Maxwell and Epstein – and who have experienced significant shame and abuse.
I deeply feel their pain.
And I also feel the pain of the millions of others who have been or continue to be exploited as minors. After years of sexual abuse, I was sex trafficked at the age of 17 and I remained in the life for nearly 12 years. My life took a turn for the better when Selah Freedom, a Sarasota-based, anti-trafficking organization, rescued me and helped me every step of the way to reclaim my life, my dignity and my feelings of self-worth.
Today, I am in my 30s and I am proud to use all of the tools I learned from Selah Freedom’s five strong programs – awareness, prevention, outreach, residential and consulting – to help others who were also forced into sex trafficking.
As the assessment coordinator at Selah Freedom, I have worked with my team for four years to help thousands of vulnerable people in dire need of help. To date, Selah Freedom has served 6,282 survivors, provided awareness training to 27,347 individuals of all ages and worked to educate countless others.
The sentencing of Maxwell is a major triumph for all of us. It sends a strong warning to predators and pedophiles that their heinous actions will not be tolerated in our society, and that they will face severe consequences for what they have done – a reality that Maxwell and her lawyers have discovered firsthand.
The awareness that has been raised by the disclosure of this horrific, tragic sex-trafficking operation should encourage more minors who are being exploited to come forward and tell someone – whether it’s their parents, caregivers, school officials, clergy members or law enforcement authorities.
Thanks to the media's ongoing coverage of child abuse and sex trafficking, groups like Selah Freedom are able to raise awareness and help prevent further tragedies. All across America, there are millions of minors who remain at risk of being lured by predators who target runaways and those in foster care – and who use social media and points of contact at schools to prey on vulnerable youths.
These endangered kids come from every socioeconomic group – and they come from every race, color, national origin, disability, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and education level.
Fortunately, Florida is taking the lead in fighting child abuse and sex trafficking. In 2019, our state became the first in America to require schools to teach K-12 students about child-trafficking prevention. But we still face a huge challenge in fighting sex trafficking, and the statistics in Florida and across our country remain staggering. For example:
Florida ranks No.3 in the nation for reported sex trafficking cases.
Florida also ranks No. 3 in the nation for reported human trafficking cases.
One in 10 children are sexually abused.
Many of the survivors at Selah Freedom report that they were sexually abused as early as age 3.
Two million children are sold each year through sex trafficking.
The sex trafficking of minors has been reported in all 50 states.
The average age of children who run away and are forced into sex trafficking ranges from 15 to 17.
At Selah Freedom, many survivors report being forced into sex trafficking at ages ranging from 12 to 14.
We are a country built on the promise of freedom and dignity for every person. Unfortunately, it’s a promise that we continue to see broken all too often for the most vulnerable among us.
Victims of sex trafficking are not only exploited in the worst possible ways – they also live in constant fear. They wake up every morning to threats of violence and outright abuse. You can help us help them by calling our intake number at (888)-8-FREE-ME – (888) 837-3363).
Angelea Valenti is a trafficking survivor who now works as an assessment coordinator at Selah Freedom, which is based in Sarasota. Visit www.selahfreedom.com/getinvolved for more information.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: A trafficking survivor reflects on Ghislaine Maxwell's sentence