Called to Not Look Away

by Anya Milton

“You may choose to look the other way, but you may never again say that you did not know.” – William Wilberforce

It’s a powerful statement. Choosing to turn one’s head in the face of injustice seems to go against every notion of an individual who strives to emulate the heart of Christ.

William Wilberforce spent his entire life working to abolish the slave trade during the 19th century. After undergoing a transformation of heart to a more evangelical mission a few years into his political career, he committed his life to the service of God though social reform.

“Amazing Grace,” released in 2006, was an influential motion picture that depicted the life of Wilberforce. In one particular scene Wilberforce is dining with the wealthy in London and recalls the atrocities of the slave trade. The woman to whom he is speaking is completely unaware of the mental and physical suffering the people are enduring.

Like this woman, I found myself completely caught off guard when I learned of a human tragedy that is larger in scale than the slave trade. This is a slavery in which children are daily bought, sold and sexually exploited. More specifically, I have become concerned with a smaller subset of this trade, which is called domestic minor sex trafficking. It’s the seedy underbelly of the sex trade that few speak of or really know about, but which exists throughout our communities, large and small.

It’s 4:30 a.m. on Saturday in Ferndale, a small community in Washington state near the Canadian border. I am driving to work at the local Starbucks, and something I see strikes me as odd. There’s a young girl walking along Main Street. She’s alone, maybe all of 15 years old. I watch her to make sure she’s ok as I pull into the parking lot. A few minutes later she’s in the store ordering a drink, my first customer of the day. I get a better look at her. She’s disheveled. Her hair done up on top of her head, her cheeks not yet lost their baby fat. Her eye makeup is dark and smoky, entirely too sophisticated for what I imagine is a 15-year-old. I have a chance to speak with her while I make her drink. She’s distant and appears disconnected, but not strung out. She disappears into the bathroom, trying to put herself back together and then she disappears into the early morning. What could I have done differently?

This young girl represents a staggering statistic in the United States. According to Shared Hope International and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there are between 100,000 and 300,000 children at risk for being trafficked in the U.S. alone. The average age at which girls first become victims of prostitution is between 12 and 14. If this young girl wasn’t already involved, she was definitely at risk for it.

How do I know this? I’ve learned how to identify these broken individuals through research and training. One of the many obstacles in combating domestic minor sex trafficking is the misidentification of these youth. Often they often go unnoticed or have other obvious drug or behavioral problems.

How did I become compelled to get involved in such a cause? I was one of five women who were transformed and inspired into action. Access Freedom is an organization that was created out of the desire to understand and address the need within our own community in Whatcom County. It is a prevention-based organization advocating awareness and providing education on DMST on a local level. It partners with social service providers and law enforcement to strengthen and sustain an active community response. Along with many individuals who have invested personal and professional time in this effort, we have begun a movement on a local level, making waves in the community and opening eyes.

Now that I have a better idea how to respond to the girl I encountered that early Saturday morning, I wish I could have given her just the smallest glimmer of hope, despite her situation.

We are all called to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; [and to] ensure justice.” With the charge from Proverbs 31:8, we should be moved to action, for we know in our hearts that we can no longer look the other way.