What is it like to work with sex-trafficking victims?
Suzanne is someone who willingly descends into the darkest and most depraved places of human society in order to rescue children sold into sexual slavery.
Formerly a NSW police detective, she now works as an international investigator carrying out covert international operations as part of an elite team of trained professionals, to find and save children trafficked into sexual servitude.
Child sex trafficking is a much bigger problem than most people realise, she said.
“Oh my goodness, we’re just at the tip of the iceberg. It is mammoth. I think living in this country, it’s so isolated that in a way that we don’t really understand the issue.”
Yet in many developing countries forcing children and vulnerable adults into sexual slavery is not as abhorred as in Western countries.
“It’s a billion-dollar industry. The profits are enormous. It’s a commodity that can be used over and over again with little to no punishment.”
According to the United Nation’s 2016 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, 79 per cent of human trafficking is for sexual exploitation and the victims are predominantly women and girls. Children account for almost 20 per cent of trafficked victims worldwide.
Suzanne has investigated child sex trafficking in Haiti, Kenya, Cambodia, Philippines, India and Thailand.
One case involved a four-year-old girl being sold on the internet by her own mother.
In another case, a group of girls were trafficked into a foreign country where they thought they would find legitimate employment. Instead they had their passports taken off them and they were forced to work as sex slaves in a bar seven days a week. They were beaten if they complained.
In such cases, Suzanne said, “They can’t leave, they don’t know the language. They’re isolated. They’re just treated like pieces of meat.”
One 17-year-old boy stands out particularly in Suzanne’s mind. “He was 17 when we found him and got him help but by then he had HIV. Such a great kid. These men took advantage of him from a young age. He’s got no parents. It makes me really, really angry.”
She was recently asked to head-up International Investigations for The Freedom Project. In her overseas investigations she works with a team of men and women, all with law enforcement or military backgrounds.
They undertake various forms of covert investigation, including surveillance, harnessing the capacities of IT to gather evidence which will assist local police to solve cases and make prosecutions.
Working undercover, team members usually pretend to be tourists interested in buying children for sex.
“We always go in very prepared and vigilant. We’re very aware of our surroundings. We do our homework. When we get there we do a reconnaissance of where we’re staying, who’s around, how we’re going to blend in.
“I’ve never worked with such humble and brave men and women. I feel privileged to be working with them.”
Suzanne says the horrific cases she’s investigated fuel her desire to persevere working in this field.
“I’ve seen pictures of physical scars. What’s done to these children really incites anger and frustration
“You just live for the next case because it’s all you want to do. It’s a culture shock coming back home. All you can think about is, ‘I want to go back’.”
The children Suzanne and her team help rescue are deeply traumatised. “[It’s] unbelievable trauma—physically, mentally, psychologically. It’s really hard to put into words.”
Being a mother herself makes it even more difficult for Suzanne to see the situations in which these children live.
“It’s really hard to see children suffer to that extent, being held in slave-like conditions, and not being able to help. So if I can help in anyway, I’ll be there,” she said.
“No child should have to suffer. No adult should have to suffer. No one has the right to use human beings as commodities, as trade, like they’re nothing. They’re just objects.”
“When you go into these bars and you see the girls swaying from side to side … they’re quite young, with no emotion. Expressionless, dancing at the bars. They’re on show. They’ve got a number. It’s like picking a product.”
While money is the main driving force behind child sex trafficking, Suzanne says pornography and sexualisation in the media and advertising also play a role in creating demand for exploited children.
“I have no doubt that porn fuels all this. Our culture has to change. Predominantly with men. Women view porn too but most perpetrators are men. That’s just a fact.”
Combating child sex trafficking is a massive and complicated battle, Suzanne said; there needs to be less talk and more action, particularly on the part of the UN.
“We need to provide a safe structure. We need to assist police to deal with it properly. We need to help their (developing countries’) justice systems because they’re all broken. There are ways you can help on the ground and it needs to be a united effort.”
Everyone can help by raising awareness in their communities and taking measures to end the culture of pornography, she said. “Speaking up and doing our little bit here. For example, regulating corporations on the internet to stop pornography.”
Rather than challenging her Christian faith, Suzanne says the evil she sees merely serves to strengthen her spiritually.
“For those who know God is their creator, there’s always hope. You could be physically, mentally, psychologically abused in horrific ways, but if your soul loses that hope, that’s worse.”
“It doesn’t challenge my faith, it strengthens it and drives me further into my faith.”
“You need a strong faith … and trust in God. For me, I couldn’t do it without him. It’s for his glory. People matter to him, therefore it should matter to all of us.”
This blog is made up of excerpts from an original article written by Catholic Sheehan that appeared from Catholic Weekly, published 14 February 2018. Available online here.