In this time of partisan politics, I write tonight of a bipartisan issue. I begin with the story of Gary Gates. Mr. Gates is a couple of years younger than I am. He lives in the Washington, D.C. area. He is a small businessman. On June 23, 2004, he pleaded guilty to a series of crimes, including in particular exploiting fourteen year old girls by having them work as prostitutes for his financial benefit.
I listened this week to Dan Rather, who broadcast programs from the Mexico's southern border, across which children are trafficked as part of their journey to ultimate destinations in the United States, to be abused sexually or to be forced to work in sweatshops. Despite the efforts of the Mexican government, the border has proven porous. Mr. Rather has noticed; the world has noticed. But the traffic continues.
Our own government has taken some useful steps to deal with the problem of the exploitation of children by adults. A useful criminal statute passed by our government makes clear that American citizens who go abroad to participate in the child sex trade will face stiff prison sentences at home.
The United Nations estimates that 1.2 million children are trafficked around the world each year. UNICEF estimates, for example, that 1,500 Guatemalan infants are trafficked to the U.S. and Europe for adoption, by-passing the established legal adoption methods. World-wide, a brisk business for "mail order brides" can include girls as young as 13. Mexico estimates that 16,000 children in its tourists resorts are exploited as prostitutes, whose "clientele" is largely foreign tourists.
It's an easy thing to say "this is just some bad people", but the problem reaches into places we are uncomfortable to ponder. In the Cote d'Ivoire, in West Africa, child laborers harvest nearly half the cocoa beans used in American chocolate in 2002. Children laboring in El Salvador reportedly use machetes to harvest sugar cane that is used to make, among other things, Coca Colas.
The United States government allocated in the range of 75 million dollars to combat human trafficking, and has designated this as a law enforcement priority. In the effort to constructively engage the problem, though, much more needs to be done.
A study by the National Association of Social Workers suggest that 325,000 children in the United States are currently victimized by child sexual exploitation. The number of children estimated to be victims of abuse or neglect in this country by the National Clearinghouse of Child Abuse and Neglect, as to the year 2002, is estimated to exceed 800,000.
This issue is neither a left-wing issue nor a right-wing issue. It is an issue on which both sides agree--efforts to fight the abuse and exploitation of children must be redoubled and assiduously pursued.
Social workers are our first foot soldiers in the war against terrorism of our children. The non-profit Child Welfare League of America suggests that a "standard" case load for a social worker should be 17 cases. In 2003, in York County, S.C., case workers were required to carry an average of 59 cases each. A hiring freeze, since lifted for that county, hindered the filling of vacant openings. State budget cuts impacted the ability of the state to provide social workers.
On February 17, 2004, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford announced a bipartisan effort to cut South Carolina's income taxes. I tend to be a bit of a monetarist, who believes that one does not cut taxes when one needs to pay for neglected services. I also am a bit of a pragmatist, who believes that you can tell the importance to states of things like preventing child abuse by whether the efforts are properly funded.
I would like for the State Department to issue "child labor advisories" for goods from countries whose industries frequently use sweatshop child labor. I would like to see the pervasive culture of sexualization of children, both in "legitimate" culture and in the shadow culture which spawns the worst offenses. It's not a "stranger with candy" situation in many instances, of course--a huge majority of abuse crimes against children are perpetrated by someone the child knows.
I think sometimes that much of my happiness in life stems from the fact that I was a loved, cared for child. It makes me deeply sad that we live in a world in which this is not true for so many children.