A pimp can make upwards of $200,000 annually off one child victim.
That’s according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, an organization that tracks the estimated $32 billion dollar business, one that preys on vulnerable teenage runaways and has grown into the second largest form of organized crime in the world. President of DC WISE, Melanie Hayes says that she used to associate the term “human trafficking” with faraway places like Eastern Europe and Asia. But through her work with the nonprofit DC Wise, she’s found the problem to be rampant in Baltimore, Prince George’s County and Washington, DC, a city that tallied the nation’s fifth-highest human-trafficking-related calls between 2009 and 2011.
“I was absolutely floored that this was happening to American girls, right here,” Hayes said. “That just blew me away. I had no idea that the exploitation of American girls was happening right under our noses.”
Serving area, at-risk women and children, DC WISE is a nonprofit fundraising group that formed in 2014. In its first year the group raised $28,000 for N Street Village, a homeless shelter and support center in Logan Circle. This year the group has linked up with Fair Girls, a Northwest-based nonprofit that battles child exploitation worldwide. With its stated goal of $60,000, DC WISE will begin its fundraising campaign in earnest on Thursday, Oct. 1 with an annual cocktail party and silent auction. It will take place from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at Room & Board located at 1840 14th St NW.
Claudia Vitale, an attorney who helped spearhead the effort, has a background in public-interest work with low-income women tangled in domestic-violence cases. Like the rest of the women in DC WISE, she’s a considerable player in DC real estate circles. She described DC WISE as a group of successful women combining forces and promoting domestic aid.
Vitale said that $60,000 can fund a new Fair Girls staff member for an entire year, which is equivalent to staff aid for eight to 10 girls. That’s not to say this is what the money will go toward, given that the organization needs consistent, long-term help more than anything else. With staffers in place over a long period of time, it gives the organization a chance to gain trust and cultivate relationships with human-trafficking victims, Vitale said.
“To get someone out of that lifestyle takes quite a lot of time,” Hayes said. “It’s not something that can happen overnight.”
Hayes says she has learned which methods are successful and which are not when dealing with victims of human-trafficking. She explained that when a girl is simply yanked from the insidious life of forced prostitution and fed into a safe house it doesn’t make for the smoothest transition. Many times the victim will immediately return to the abusive surroundings they left behind.
“They’re not mentally ready to make that switch,” Hayes said, adding that the victims are emotionally and financially dependent on their abusers. “The person who is exploiting them may also act as a father figure and provides them food and shelter. So they would be leaving an abusive relationship, but it’s also the source of everything that they are able to receive. To go completely by themselves without any social network, it’s not necessarily realistic for them to come out in one fell swoop.”
DC Wise is made up by 11 women, including title attorney Vitale, two lenders and the rest real estate agents, each bringing a separate set of strengths to the group. Firms represented include DCRE Residential, Sotheby’s International Realty, Compass, Washington Fine Properties, Keller Williams Realty, and City Chic Real Estate.
Founded by Andrea Powell and Caroline Tower Morris in 2003, Fair Girls (formerly Fair Fund) now has programs in Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia and Russia in addition to the United States.
Tickets for the cocktail party and silent auction are available for purchase here.