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Mitchell: Sex trafficking targets girls in child welfare system

Staff mug Mary Mitchell. (Phoby Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times)

Staff mug of Mary Mitchell. (Photo by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times)

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Updated: October 2, 2013 6:40AM



The person on the phone sounded scared.

“I just moved into an apartment building three months ago,” she told me.

“The first week, the girl next door gave a party. I heard a girl just screaming. The following week I woke up at 5:30 a.m. and I heard girls screaming. Someone in the building was hollering for them to shut up,” the woman said.

I am not identifying the caller by name because like I said, she’s scared.

But the woman claims she often saw young women, who looked terrified, being led by several men in and out of a South Side apartment. Then came the screaming.

“I must have called the police 50 times. I finally moved out. They could have gotten me next. It was really scary,” she said.

More than likely, these women were being held against their will.

Although sex trafficking is often portrayed as something that happens in foreign countries or to foreigners who end up in the U.S. without resources, that’s not always the case.

In fact, the likely victim of this kind of abuse is a ward of the state who has run away or has been emancipated without the means and skills to make it on their own.

“Those types of scenarios — trafficking of foreign women — are horrible, but that is not the majority,” said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart in an interview.

“The majority of trafficking cases involve local girls being trafficked by local people. We see that all the time. Young girls are being snatched off the street and pimps are beating the crap out of them and stringing them out on dope,” he said.

“Who would be your perfect target — throwaway kids. They are on the run. They have no parents. The child welfare system that is supposed to look after them has given them up,” Dart added.

A spokesman for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services did not respond to my request for comments.

Last October, Dart launched the Child Protection Response Unit primarily to address this problem.

So far, the unit has recovered 211 juveniles.

Of that number, 91 were males and 120 were females; 80 percent were African-American while 15 percent were Hispanic. Forty percent of the juveniles were 15 years old and younger. Almost all of the juveniles were wards of the state.

Nearly two-thirds of the girls found were at risk of being sexually trafficked.

Brittany Featherling, 20, was 14 when she first ran away from her home in Ohio. By the time she was 17, she was turning tricks and using hard drugs. She believes an agency like the Child Protection Response Unit could have helped her.

“It was like no one really cared. I knew all the cops and they knew I was a runaway and they would let me go,” she said. “No one tried, but I was giving out cries for help.”

She is now in Cook County jail on charges of possession of a stolen vehicle, where she is receiving substance abuse treatment.

She told me one story that shows the prevalence of the abuse.

About two years ago, she picked up a man in Niles who drove her to his home in Woodstock. After completing a sex act, Featherling said the man tied her up to his furnace, raped her, videotaped her in various positions, beat her and threatened her with a gun before letting her go.

“I later found out this man had done this to 20 other girls,” she said.

That man has been apprehended and has been charged with criminal sexual assault and unlawful restraint.

Unfortunately, Featherling’s story is not rare.

In July, the Chicago Division of the FBI, working with the Cook County Sheriff’s Department and Chicago Police Department, conducted a sweep that rescued two teens who were caught up in illicit sexual activity.

The sweep targeted 76 cities and recovered 105 juveniles who were being victimized.

“It is a stark fact that so many of the children trafficked came out of the child welfare system,” Dart said.

“As soon as we get information that a child is missing, we send our guys out,” he said.

“If we can’t feel that this is a priority, then we ought to forget about it. We ought to just quit,” he said.

Email: marym@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MaryMitchellCST



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