News & Politics

Q&A With Tracy Sefl and Autumn VandeHei About Child Sex-Trafficking in the US

We speak with organizers of the Symposium on Meeting the Needs of Child Trafficking Survivors, running through Thursday.

As part of a White House initiative announced last year, a symposium about the needs of child sex-trafficking victims kicked off this morning in Baltimore. Attendees, including Maryland and Virginia governors Martin O’Malley and Bob McDonnell, and health and human services secretary Kathleen Sebelius, are discussing health repercussions faced by trafficking survivors and how public policy can help.

Though little is known about the number of children affected by trafficking in the US, evidence collected by groups such as the Polaris Project shows the problem is widespread.

Two of the symposium’s organizers, Tracy Sefl and Autumn VandeHei (its third organizer is former The West Wing producer Allison Abner), took a few minutes to chat with The Washingtonian.

Why devote your time to this?

TS: We began to walk out of certain meetings and turn to each other and say, “We’re hearing a lot about trafficking. We’re concerned about child sexual abuse and exploitation. But where’s the research?” In looking around and talking to people in other fields, we realized that something like this symposium was desperately needed. It’s really the first of its kind, putting child sex-trafficking not in a law enforcement or judicial context, but in a public health context.

How did you become interested in this particular issue?

AV: My background is in child-protective services. I was a child-abuse investigator and case manager before coming to DC. I worked in Congress on this issue. I have always been focused on sexual violence against women and girls. It came to my attention, working with survivors about four or five years ago, that we were seeing this proliferation of internet phenomena [leading to trafficking], things like adult services advertised on Craigslist. That’s when my interest was piqued.

Do you foresee national policy actually beginning to get crafted at the symposium?

AV: It would be premature to ask for policy. Our goal is to get stakeholders to recognize that it is too early for legislation. What we hope to begin by bringing these stakeholders together is to identify gaps in research and best practices. The next step is to build partnerships to fill in the gaps.

TS: [We foresee these partnerships including] law enforcement, first responders, mental health providers and practitioners, mental health scholars. We’re looking at this holistically. We’re not saying no to anyone.

What are some of the mental health repercussions for trafficking victims?

TS: There was an amazing presentation this morning from a doctor from the Centers for Disease Control. He talked about the correlation of traumatic experiences of childhood with negative adult consequences, whether it’s substance abuse, violent relationships, even early death. It was powerful data, especially having come from the CDC.

A lot of people think of child trafficking as only occurring in other countries. What is the state of this crime here in the US?

TS: This is one of the questions we’re positing to our attendees. We want to know where the gaps in knowledge lie.

AV: From everything that we’ve seen, we are actually less advanced and have fewer strong, minimum standards of care established here in the United States than elsewhere. We’re behind the curve with respect to education and awareness of this issue. It has taken us a while to define this facet of child exploitation as child trafficking. Lawmakers are now recognizing that this is a serious issue and are ready to do something about it. We feel our role is to insist the response isn’t knee-jerk. We see our role as telling the government, “Hold on, we need to have hearings on this, we need to partner with academic institutions to research this.” Our fear is that the government, in its haste, will fund programs that are not necessarily reflective of best practices.

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Senior Editor

Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 as a staff writer, and became a senior editor in 2014. She oversees the magazine’s real estate and home design coverage, and writes long-form feature stories. She was a 2020 Livingston Award finalist for her two-part investigation into a wrongful conviction stemming from a murder in rural Virginia.