HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) -Law enforcement officials describe it as a heinous crime hiding in plain sight that targets Hawai’i’s most vulnerable population: our keiki.
It's a relatively unknown crisis that has hit our island paradise, but officials say more awareness about the issue of child sex trafficking is the first step to ending its vicious cycle.
It’s important to understand that child sex trafficking — also referred to as the commercial sexual exploitation of children — does not involve transporting victims across boundaries or borders. Trafficking can occur within one state, one island, one community, one neighborhood. Often the victims believe the trafficker is their boyfriend, but officials say education can help people understand what child sex trafficking really is: an adult taking advantage of a vulnerable juvenile and using force, fraud or coercion to compel that child to engage in sex for profit.
"We need to save children from this crime. It's a life that's thrown away if we don't take action now and we have the opportunity to save some children," explained Kevin Takata, Supervising Deputy Attorney General for the Criminal Justice Division of the Department of the Attorney General for the State of Hawai'i.
Law enforcement says one of the biggest challenges they're facing is being able to quantify the extent of the crisis here in Hawai'i, but they say there are a number of factors that contribute to a thriving sex trafficking trade in the state -- our tourism industry, our military presence and our location in the middle of the Pacific.
"There is a study by Arizona State University that actually places the demand for commercial sex in Hawaii higher than most cities on the mainland -- and that's quite alarming," described John Tobon, Acting Special Agent in Charge for Homeland Security Investigations Honolulu.
According to Thorn.org, a national non-profit committed to ending child sex trafficking, 150,000 new escort ads are posted online every day. Among them are offers for children. And you don’t have to go on the dark web to find them — internet sites that promote rooms for rent and clothes for sale openly advertise children who can be bought for sex.
"In the sex trafficking world, what we've found out is that there is certainly a market for online demand for sexual acts by children. My office has prosecuted more child exploitation cases this year alone than in the prior three years combined," said Kenji Price, U.S. Attorney for the District of Hawai'i.
Officials say the average age a keiki is trafficked here in Hawai'i is 14. What most victims have in common is that they're runaways -- many of whom were in the foster care system.
“If a child runs away, within 48 hours she’s going to be approached for a sexual favor,” explained Tammy Bitanga, a Peer Support Specialist and Community Advocacy and Outreach Coordinator for local non-profit Ho’ola Na Pua, which is committed to providing the healing resources child sex trafficking survivors need to thrive.
Experts say if it's the third time a keiki has left home that child has a 50% chance of being trafficked -- usually by someone who has been grooming them to become a victim.
"That guy that promises them a Gucci bag or shoes or dope or freedom from their parents - it's not going to be for free. It's complimentary services. They are going to have to pay the price - and if that price is their physical body and their mind and their heart -- there's a price. There's going to be a price," Bitanga described.
Officials say traffickers prey on children who are looking for love and protection, and brainwash them into believing that's what they're providing -- even as they're selling their bodies to the highest bidder, but law enforcement and service providers want to be clear: there's no such thing as a child prostitute. These are all victims.
"When you're talking about minors who are lured into this cycle of human trafficking and sex trafficking, there's no such thing as consent," said Price.
"We call this modern-day slavery, the difference between slavery of the past is that we don't put bars or chains on the bodies necessarily of these victims — we put bars and chains over their minds," described Takata.
Trafficking is not easily identified. It's signs can be subtle, and picking out a predator can be even more difficult.
"It could be anybody, a doctor, a lawyer, a police officer, somebody in the military -- that's what's unfortunate about trying to come up with red flags for perpetrators or for predators because it could be literally anybody," explained Tobon.
During a recent undercover internet sting on O'ahu, investigators posed as teens offering sexual services and eight men were arrested trying to meet up with them. Four of the suspects in state custody have been identified as Chann Bun, Nicholas Singletary, Michael AJ Silva and Kaika Lacaden. The other four are being investigated by the feds.
Law enforcement says this is just the beginning, but service providers, like Ho'ola Na Pua, say these horrific crimes against children in our community need to come to an end.
"This is a human issue. It's not a child issue. It's not a buyer issue. It's not a trafficker issue. It's a human issue. How can we think in this day and age that it's okay to buy a body to just use and abuse and dispose of?" Bitanga said.
On Monday, Nov. 4, the Hawai’i Tourism Authority and the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association (HLTA) together with Ho’ola Na Pua are hosting the inaugural “Campaign for a Safer Community” Hospitality Industry Symposium at the Royal Hawaiian in Waikiki.
The keynote address will tackle the issue of sex trafficking and exploitation and presenters will explain the key role the tourism industry can play in protecting our community.
HTA and HLTA are sponsoring these workshops, so they are free to attend. Organizers say the symposiums are aimed at empowering Hawai’i’s visitor industry management, but everyone who wants to help raise awareness and take a stand against trafficking is welcome to attend. Topics include: “Defining Trafficking & Exploitation,” “Tourism Industry as Key Partners in Protecting Our Community,” and “Responding, Reporting, and Action Steps.”
To report suspected human trafficking to federal law enforcement, call 1-866-347-2423.
To get help from the National Human Trafficking hotline, call 1-888-373-7888 or text "HELP" or "INFO" to BeFree (233733).
For more information on Hawai’i’s Internet Crimes Against Children unit and the local resources that are available, head to ag.hawaii.gov/hicac.