By LAUREN KNIGHT
PROVIDENCE — Not every 17-year-old takes a public stand on a social issue. Yet Ashley Reese, a senior at Exeter-West Greenwich High School, did just that last Wednesday afternoon at the Statehouse.
Reese, in partnership with the Rhode Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking, spoke before a crowd of people about how, despite laws, the sex trafficking industry can still pull in women and children in Rhode Island.
According to Kim Harris, the chair of the RI Coalition Against Human Trafficking, Rhode Island has the strongest trafficking laws for minors—any child under the age of 18 involved in prostitution, stripping, pornography or any other form of soliciting sex is automatically identified as a victim.
Yet, as Reese discussed at the Statehouse, once these children turn 18, they are viewed as adults and in turn viewed by law enforcement as criminals. She called three volunteers from the audience to read three stories of girls who found themselves caught in the world of prostitution: one needed to escape molestation by her foster parents, one ran away from home and needed shelter, and the other began prostitution at the age of 11.
“Let me ask you, is that what you expected as the faces of sex trafficking?,” she asked the audience. “The average age of a child in prostitution is 12-years-old. They are victims of broken homes, poverty, oppression… when they were forced into prostitution.”
The Rhode Island General Assembly passed four pieces of legislation in 2009: two bills on human trafficking and two bills closing the loophole in the state that formerly allowed indoor prostitution. Harris spoke after Reese and explained how, now that law enforcement has the ability to raid a brothel, at times they have arrested every prostitute in the building—including minors.
“Unfortunately, what’s happening is… they have a perception of what they think the ages of the girls are. Then the [girls] get arrested and get charged with prostitution,” she said.
What the Rhode Island Coalition for Human Trafficking is trying to do, she said, is provide further protection for minors.
As a minor herself, Reese believes she has a voice to speak out on behalf of the victims in Rhode Island. In an interview with the Times, she explained that she has done a considerable amount of research for this project.
As she read the stories, she said, “I was shocked.”
“It’s definitely a problem. It’s unfortunate because one child [being exploited] is one child too many,” she added. “It’s not a well-known problem and that’s why I wanted to bring it forward and tell people.”
And on Wednesday afternoon, that is what she did. A group of students from Exeter-West Greenwich attended the event, holding posters saying, “End sex traffick[ing] of children” and “Why don’t we charge men who buy sex from children?”
Senator Rhoda Perry (D-Dist. 3, Providence), one of the legislators who sponsored the 2009 legislation on human trafficking, said at the event on Wednesday that Rhode Island needs the youth to step forward and take a stand on these social issues.
“This young woman, coming up to the plate—we need young people involved with these types of causes and issues. We really do,” she said. “I need young people and then when I retire, you all can [speak] and I can be here in the audience, helping you in any way.”
Reese became involved in the efforts with the Rhode Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking (RICAHT) for her senior paper and project. She initially pursued the broader topic of human trafficking in Rhode Island but as she researched, found that much of RICAHT’s focus was on sex trafficking. She narrowed the topic down because she thought it was appropriate since she, herself, is a minor.
“I wanted to do something that was politically motivating and make a difference,” she finished.