Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

Child Sex Traffickers and Their Friends

When my daughter became old enough to go to parties unattended but still needed a ride to get there, I had a captive audience. I used this drive to revisit the dangers of opioids, pills and alcohol abuse. Even when her friends were riding with us, I’d talk about the issue while they all rolled their eyes.

“No one is passing out opioids at the eighth-grade dance,” she told me a few years ago. I often shared chauffeur duties with another mom, who had her own drive-time PSA campaign.

“She talks about sex trafficking the way you talk about opioids,” my daughter said. It seemed like a low-level risk to warn our girls about in this middle-class, suburban town in the middle of America.

In fact, it’s a bigger deal than many parents realize. The St. Louis County Police Department investigated 191 cases of human trafficking between 2016 and 2018. The St. Louis metro area is often used as a “stop-off” point because of its location in the center of the country. Some groups of children are far more vulnerable, such as homeless and runaway teens, but anyone can get entrapped. Recruitment typically takes place over a period of time and involves brainwashing, manipulation and grooming tactics before the abuse begins.

A window into this sick world opened when federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York charged billionaire Jeffrey Epstein earlier this week with sex trafficking and sex trafficking conspiracy. He faces a maximum of 45 years in prison if convicted. The indictment alleges that he “sexually exploited and abused dozens of minor girls” between 2002 and 2005. Epstein allegedly lured girls as young as 14 to come to his homes in New York and Florida and sexually exploited them. Some of the children were used to recruit other minor victims.

The indictment describes an actual child-sex ring operation run by a man who is part of the wealthiest and most politically connected Americans. The case reveals how privileged men can avoid consequences for the most depraved acts.

In 2008, Alex Acosta was a federal prosecutor in Florida who made a secret plea deal with Epstein that allowed him to escape federal charges and a potential life sentence after being accused of sexually assaulting dozens of underage girls at his Palm Beach mansion. The Miami Herald reported last year that the plea deal essentially shut down an ongoing FBI probe into whether there were more victims and other powerful people who took part in Epstein’s sex crimes. Acosta’s office broke the law by not telling Epstein’s victims of the sweetheart deal, a judge later ruled.

The investigation involved at least 40 teenage girls. Epstein's plea allowed him to serve 13 months in jail, during which he was allowed to leave for work during the day.

Think about that: He was allowed to leave jail during the day to go to work. Did the lives of 40 traumatized girls matter so little?

And yet, there are those who have expressed more outrage about a black actress playing a fictional Disney mermaid.

Epstein’s social circles reached the highest levels of our government. President Donald Trump had called him a "terrific guy" he had known for 15 years and told New York magazine in 2002 that “(Epstein’s) a lot of fun to be with ... It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”

Former President Bill Clinton also had previously praised Epstein and had traveled on his private plane on multiple occasions. In the past several days, both men have distanced themselves from Epstein.

Senators knew about the secret sweetheart deal when they approved Acosta as Trump’s labor secretary.

Meanwhile, Trump picked an odd focus for his sympathy. “I feel very badly actually for Secretary Acosta,” he said to reporters.

Who feels very badly about the dozens of children who were sexually abused?

Meanwhile, Acosta has proposed 80% funding cuts for the government agency that combats child sex trafficking.

Parents can warn their children about all the potential dangers and risks they might face. But there’s no way to explain an even darker truth: Some adults are more invested in protecting predators than children.