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January 31, 2015
Sunday Conversation with Jennifer Swain
by Ann Hardie
No one likes talking about the selling of children for sex. Not Jennifer Swain, interim executive director of youthSpark. Since 2000, the nonprofit, based at the Fulton County Juvenile Court, has been on the front lines of protecting mostly girls but lots of boys from sex traffickers.
“People are uncomfortable with the topic because it exists in the first place or because it breaks your heart,” Swain said. “It breaks my heart.”
But the collective voice of youthSpark, public officials, advocates and increasingly survivors themselves is being heard, resulting in new laws aimed at traffickers and programs for minors at risk. And Georgia, once known as a hotbed for the exploitation of children, is drawing attention for its efforts to protect them.
Q: What is the biggest misconception about minors who are trafficked?
A: That they should just run away from these situations. These are kids being exploited for the basic needs of life — food, shelter, clothing. About 80 to 90 percent of victims have a history of sexual abuse. Many girls who come to our intervention program through juvenile court believe that that 30-year-old man really loves them.
Q: Is that man a pimp or a customer?
A: We have to change our thinking about what a pimp looks like. If you are looking for a guy in the purple suit with purple gators, you are going to miss the mark. Today a pimp can look like a woman or the guy walking next to you going to work. It can be child abuse and neglect and poverty or a lack of community support or parental accountability. We have to be as equally passionate about disabling the demand for prostituted children as we are rescuing and restoring them to the life they were designed to have.
Q: Do those kids ever get back to that life?
A: Yes they can. We use the word victim a lot but those who come out on the other side are really survivors. We have seen girls integrate back into a homelike setting, go on to college, go on to become great moms. We have seen more survivors speaking out, empowering other survivors not to feel ashamed.
Q: Does the discomfort in talking about this issue make it hard to tackle?
A: Initially. Because it is more visible, it is getting easier.
Q: Why is Atlanta such a hub for the sex trafficking of minors?
A: Atlanta has an international airport and about 1,200 miles of interstate connecting us to other major cities. We have a high convention and tourism industry. Atlanta has an overly sexualized or highly glamorized adult entertainment industry.
Q: How is that connected?
A: While there isn't a direct connection between the adult entertainment industry and the trafficking of children per se, at a high level, it really helps to desensitize how women are perceived as sexual objects.
Q: What do you want out of the Legislature this year?
A: We are going for a “Safe Harbor” law that says a minor can't be charged with prostitution. We already have a law that expunges the records of minors charged with prostitution. It just makes sense that minors should not be charged in the first place.
Q: How did you get to youthSpark?
A: I ask myself that all the time. I was working in the engineering department airing shows for a television news station in Alabama. It was a cool job but I wanted to feel connected personally and emotionally to my work. I took a temporary administrative position at youthSpark and learned there is nothing else for me.
Abuse victims identified on select committee website
Four survivors of child sex abuse say they have received more threats and online abuse after MPs inadvertently published their details online.
Their names were placed on the Home Affairs Committee website, but removed the next day after they complained.
The document appeared among papers the committee released as part of its probe into how the Home Office has handled the issue of historical child abuse.
It was supplied by a member of the government-appointed abuse probe panel.
But in a statement, the panel said the document was supplied "without permission or knowledge" of seven of the eight members or the inquiry secretariat.
In a letter to Home Secretary Theresa May, the victims said they had been left feeling vulnerable and exposed.
They added that views expressed in the documents by some of the panel members had added to their distress.
BBC home affairs correspondent Tom Symonds said the row is the latest confrontation in a split between the groups preparing to take part in the abuse inquiry.
The home secretary is preparing to announce a new chairman, and the entire format of the inquiry could be reformatted.
The names and contact details of victims were released online last week.
Several of those named are active on social media but the material also referred to a woman who is not.
The Home Affairs Committee said: "The material included directions to panel members about how they should answer questions from the committee, as well as email exchanges between panel members about the panel's external communications strategy.
"These emails included the names of third parties who were not members of the panel.
"At the request of the individuals concerned, and of the panel secretariat, the material has been redacted to remove references to these individuals."
Author Naomi Hunter reaches out to children of sexual abuse
by Tracy Kiesler
Australian author Naomi Hunter is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Not only was she abused by a neighbor but she endured years of abuse from a family member, in fact her very own brother. It is estimated that approximately 15% of all people report some kind of sexual activity with a sibling in childhood. A 1991 study showed that between 2% and 4% of people have been sexually abused by a sibling. Leder, 1991. Finkelhor, 1999.
A Secret Safe to Tell is Naomi's book. She has taken on the challenge of reaching victims while they are still in childhood. Sexual abuse of children is such a taboo subject. It's very difficult to talk to adult victims. Even more delicate is the job of talking to young children about it. Naomi has managed to write a book about her story that is delivered in a manner that isn't frightening for youngsters. Naomi has kept in mind that while some of the children who hear her story will be victims of abuse, they may not recognize it as abuse. She is hoping they will identify with her story and be able to step out in courage to find the help that they need.
T.K . Did you always understand you were abused, or was it a revelation of sorts?
N.H . My older brother who is nine years older than me, abused me from such an early age that I just assumed that this kind of connection was ‘normal.' He had told me that this was the plan for my life, that's why I was born, we were ‘in love', I made him feel so good, that it was our future to be together and get married and be like ‘real lovers'… etc. I knew that it was our secret because I was told that even though our hearts were deeply in love, that adults wouldn't understand and we needed to wait until we were older to tell them. A neighbour began sexually abusing me too, in secret, so I was being introduced to all this secret sexual behaviour, pleasuring men and witnessing pornography. I just thought it was normal! I saw a TV show Degrassi High, in which a teacher was secretively making passes at a student and although I did not see anything that resembled my sexual abuse situation, I could relate to how the girl in the show was feeling. She told her mum so I felt like that was ‘the right thing to do'. I told her about our neighbour and I was instantly believed. The police became involved and it opened up a major investigation in our neighbourhood where 15 other children came forward too to say that it was also happening to them by this man. I didn't associate the two abusive situations… As an adult now, I still look back on this with amazement that I was so well groomed by my brother to feel like his abuse was love. I suffered a further two more years of him raping me and abusing me until I finally told my mum when I was 10. Her response will haunt me forever… She called me a liar and dragged me to school in a shockingly distressed state and informed my teacher that I wasn't to make up such hideous lies. So I learned that sexual abuse was wrong from our neighbour but OK from my brother. I learned that it was not ok to tell. So I suffered in silence and developed a major eating disorder to cope. My understandings of abuse were so blurred and confusing that I have only in the past few years, truly began to grasp the horror of such a revelation.
With all that being said, I would strongly recommend disclosing to a trusted person who can support and validate them. It is better to tell and share, than to live a life of silent suffering and denying yourself the connectedness with your body that everyone deserves.
T.K . Do you have plans on presenting a program to schools? I know you plan on writing more books on sensitive subjects for children. How do you envision getting your books to the kids?
N.H . We do have a goal to eventually conduct school presentations but at the moment we are concentrating on educating parents and care givers, empowering them with the knowledge and tools that it is OK to have body safety discussions with their children. We are currently running sessions at schools, child care centres etc. with educators, parents and care-givers coming along to find out how A Secret Safe to Tell is currently impacting children - helping them to feel confident and empowered to disclose abuse, helping parents to discuss body safety and helping adult survivors of CSA to feel less isolated, less ashamed and more empowered.
My husband and I are actually taking the opportunity to travel with our daughter to Africa next year to help run a little school in Tanzania. The school is in Bagamoyo, on the east coast and will be an incredible opportunity for our little family. We are going to learn so much about language, culture and life!! Tanzania is a fantastic place full of life, nature and sunshine. We are looking forward to living a year completely separated from our past 5 years. This time next year we will decide on our next adventure – possibly New York, Canada or Europe… maybe all of the above. It will also be a fabulous opportunity to connect personally with our global connections that we are making through my book, and present our information sessions all over the world. My book is already in the early stages of being translated into Chinese and will be released next year, I hope it to be the first of many different language translations!
T.K. How can people in the States order your book?
N.H. My publishers are working on a US distributor as we speak and I will update you on this as it progresses. In the meantime, people can contact me on my Facebook page (www.facebook.com/naomihunterauthor), send me a message with their order and I can send a personally signed copy. Alternatively, orders can be taken directly through my publisher's website (www.classic-jojo.com). Kindle downloads are available on www.amazon.com.
Naomi's story is extremely inspirational. Watch for the follow up article (After the Secret) about the steps she took to recover and the tools she utilizes to stay healthy in mind, body and spirit. Recovery is a lifelong commitment. Naomi has done a wonderful job sharing her experience in hopes of living the fullest happiest life she possibly can. I believe it will be helpful for survivors to be able to learn from her life. It is in honesty and openness that we know we are not alone.
CAASA offers 'Darkness to Light' training
by Hanna Russmann
Centers Against Abuse and Sexual Assault will conduct a free community child sexual abuse prevention training session called Darkness to Light Stewards of Children at the Spencer Public Library from 6-8:15 p.m. Tuesday.
This is the second year CAASA will offer the training program designed to teach adults how to prevent, recognize and react responsibly to child sexual abuse. The training session will be lead by Kristi Neumann, CAASA sexual abuse prevention education coordinator.
"There has never been a person who walked away from this program and said they didn't get anything out of it," Neumann said. "It is time well spent."
She added, "We raise awareness to the fact that one-in-four girls and one-in-six boys will be sexually abused before they are the age of 18, and that is just the reported cases."
The training program is directed toward parents and organizations that work closely with children. Those who attend will view video testimonials of 10 child sexual abuse survivors and participate in a discussion.
"We will talk about the signs of sexual abuse," Neumann said. "We will discuss how to talk to children about sexual abuse, safe boundaries, healthy sexuality and that no means no."
Other topics include how to report child sexual abuse, what to report, what is reportable, how to set up a prevention plan and what types of situations to avoid in order to prevent child sexual abuse.
"For organizations that work with children, we will also talk about how to establish a code of conduct," Neumann said.
For more information about the training session or to register for the event contact Kristi Neumann at CAASA by email at email@example.com or phone at 712-732-8120.
"Children can't protect themselves from this type of abuse. It is up to adults to step up and prevent it," Neumann said.
No Such Thing as a Child Prostitute: A Perspective From the Bench
by Catherine J. Pratt -- Commissioner, Los Angeles Superior Court
I first met Rebecca when she was 14 and arrested for prostitution. Although most youth offenders charged with non-violent crimes remain at home while on probation, that wasn't an option for Rebecca. Both of her parents had substance abuse problems and lengthy prison records. Her grandfather tried his best with her, but a sick man in his 80's was no match for this street-smart teenager. Over the next few years, until she "aged out" of the system, I treated her like any other kid on probation, put her in custody when she didn't follow the rules, offered her counseling, encouraged her to go to school, but none of that helped her. I slowly learned about the reality of her life: her pimp expected her to return to him as soon as she was released from custody. She risked extreme violence if she did not report back to him as soon as she was free; the burn scars on her chest attested to that. On one occasion, he actually waited outside the courthouse to claim his property as soon as I took her off of electronic monitoring. She was his favorite, most lucrative girl and he vowed to find her anywhere. When I sent her to a safe haven in Phoenix, he picked her up within 2 days and put her back on the streets of Los Angeles within hours.
Shortly before her 18th birthday, I sent her to yet another group home. She left after 3 days, which was no surprise. The difference this time around was that she came back to us within a week, voluntarily. She wasn't back on the street, hadn't been arrested or physically beaten. Her spirit had been crushed though. This time when she returned to her trafficker/pimp, he rejected her. He told her that, at 17, she was too old to work for him. He had found another 14 year old and she was making lots of money for him. Rebecca was hurt and angry and told us that she wanted to kill him. I saw the silver lining: she had come back asking for help.
I am a court commissioner in Los Angeles and supervise juveniles who are on probation for anything from petty theft to murder. For many years, I assumed the girls before me who had been arrested for prostitution had chosen to be on the streets, that they saw this as a way to support themselves when their families failed to do so. Then I became aware of the repeated violence and trauma inflicted upon them over many years, by family members, trusted adults and gang-entrenched pimps. As a system, we focused on their faults and failures, completely overlooking how decades of poverty, community violence and our over-sexualized media helped to shape them. These children are the latest generation of "throw-away" kids that families, communities and child welfare systems don't know how to help. And so they end up in the juvenile justice system, charged with a crime that, arguably, they legally cannot commit. Because if you are too young to consent to sex it follows, logically, that you are too young to consent to sell sex. We lock them up, take away their ability to make any decisions for themselves and label them with some of the most shameful terms used to describe humans: "prostitutes" and "criminals."
In Los Angeles, some of us are trying a new approach. Very dedicated and specially trained probation officers, attorneys, counselors, group home staff and advocates meet weekly, in a collaborative, non-adversarial court setting and assess each girl individually. Many of the girls are traumatized, distrusting and downright prickly teenagers. They also have incredible talents to express themselves, to re-invent themselves and to survive. The common goal for each girl is for her to believe that she has the option to be something else, anything else, because despite the criminal and social label, she is not a prostitute. Progress is slow and setbacks can be heart-breaking, but we eagerly celebrate their successes, small and large. Some days, we celebrate graduations. Others days, we rejoice when a girl walks away from her pimp, or escapes, and asks for help. As for Rebecca, we are making plans to celebrate her 20th birthday. We count her as one of our successes.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Rights4Girls in conjunction with The McCain Institute. Join us in our campaign No Such Thing--that there is no such thing as child prostitute, only victims and survivors or child rape. For more information on No SuchThing, read here.
Lizbeth Benacquisto introduces bill to tweak evidence standards in child abuse cases
by Ryan Ray
Republican state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto of Ft. Myers has filed legislation to change course in a difficult area of state law — the legal status of child abuse evidence recorded unbeknownst to the abuser.
A recent Florida Supreme Court opinion overruled the conviction of a Lee County man found guilty of sexually abusing his stepdaughter, finding that the audio recordings admitted into evidence against him should not have been considered by the jury, as they were taken without her abuser's consent.
“It may well be that a compelling case can be made for an exception … for recordings that provide evidence of criminal activity — or at least certain types of criminal activities,'' said wrote Justice Charles Canady for the majority. “But the adoption of such an exception is a matter for the Legislature. It is not within the province of the courts to create such an exception by ignoring the plain import of the statutory text.”
Benacquisto's bill, SB 542, seeks to create exactly the kind of exception Canady mentions.
“I will not stand by while child predators navigate loopholes in our legal system. Fear of not being believed prevents countless children from turning in their abusers,” said Benacquisto in a statement. “This bill will ensure Florida's children have a voice in our courts of law, and I am eager to work with Attorney General Pam Bondi to close this devastating gap in our child protection laws. Together, we will continue to make sure that Florida is the most unfriendly place in America for sexually violent criminals who prey on our children.”
Sen. Wilton Simpson of Trilby has agreed to co-sponsor the bill and lend to it his considerable influence in the Senate.
“In a recent case, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a child rapist because the evidence against him was recorded by his victim without his knowledge,” said Simpson on Wednesday. “This defies common sense and basic human logic. The purpose of this bill is to ensure sexual abusers convicted based on recorded evidence stay in prison, and far away from our children. The message to pedophiles is clear: You have no right to privacy. Your rights ceased to exist when you chose to destroy the life of a child through sexual abuse.”
Lauren's Kids founder and CEO Lauren Book responded to the filing with a statement:
“Last month's McDade vs. State Florida Supreme Court ruling prevents prosecutors from using secret recordings made by children to prove they are being abused – it's just not within the bounds of current Florida law, and that's just not acceptable. The Florida Supreme Court agreed, directly calling upon the lawmakers to fix it.
“The young survivor at the center of the McDade vs. State case tried to tell at least three separate adults on three separate occasions about the abuse she was enduring, but her voice was silenced until she created a secret recording on her cell phone, which was ultimately not admissible as evidence. We cannot allow even one more child's voice to be silenced. With 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys falling victim to sexual abuse before their 18 th birthday, the time has come to use every tool at our disposal to protect children from the horror of sexual abuse.
“For this reason, I urge the swift adoption of legislation that would allow courts to consider recordings made secretly by children as evidence that an adult has sexually abused them. Senators Lizbeth Benacquisto and Wilton Simpson, Representatives Jared Moskowitz and Carlos Trujillo, and Attorney General Pam Bondi are to be applauded for their immediate response in the drafting and filing of legislation for early consideration to close this terribly abusive provision.
“As a survivor and advocate, I fully recognize the myriad barriers that prevent children from coming forward and telling about sexual abuse. They face shame, ridicule, embarrassment, guilt, fear…the list goes on and on. Worst of all, as we saw in McDade vs. State and hear far too often from survivors, it's easy for adults to simply dismiss these accounts of abuse as the imaginings of confused, or rebellious, or spiteful children – not as the accurate, heart-breaking truths these children were forced to live through. The proposed legislation, by allowing children's secret recordings to be admitted into evidence, will empower children and give prosecutors a potent tool to put predators behind bars where they belong.”
Momentum for anti-trafficking builds, but ambassadorship still vacant
by David Abramowitz
This week marks the end of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Honorary months often seem to be a ritual of pronouncements and chest thumping, followed by little real action. Yet this year, it feels like we have reached a turning point in the fight to combat human trafficking.
Fifteen years ago, human trafficking was a niche issue with only a few members of the U.S. Congress paying attention. In the last few years, however, the circle of champions has exploded. Just this week, 12 pieces of legislation were considered on the House floor touching a wide range of issues, from child welfare to increasing the U.S. government's focus on trafficking to finding more resources for survivors. The Senate is also gearing up to move forward with its own bipartisan proposals (including the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act), and the Obama administration has just released long-awaited regulations to implement the president's executive order to prevent human trafficking in federal procurement.
Civil society engagement in the field has also continued to grow. Human Rights First (HRF), a leader in human rights advocacy, is launching a new campaign to disrupt the business of human trafficking which will focus on more prosecutions of all perpetrators, promoting a victim-centered approach and pushing the U.S. government and businesses to do more to prevent and respond to modern slavery. (Full disclosure: I have been working with HRF to shape this new campaign.) Furthermore, philanthropic partnerships like the Freedom Fund (which Humanity United supports) are bringing further coordination and new funding to this field, both here and abroad.
The faith community is also reaffirming a commitment to ending this terrible human rights abuse. Last Spring, Pope Francis met with trafficking survivors and in December hosted a convening of faith leaders to sign a declaration to abolish modern slavery by 2020.
With all this activity however, there is one glaring gap: the lack of an Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. The so-called TIP ambassador position at the U.S. State Department has been vacant for two months, with even longer delays ahead given that the position requires Senate confirmation. The U.S. is considered one of the global leaders in combatting human trafficking and the absence of the TIP ambassador can jeopardize U.S. leadership.
Finding the right candidate is challenging. The TIP ambassador will need to help build this field and heal the remaining fissures that exist within it. Such a person must be committed to an inclusive and balanced approach to combat labor and sex trafficking of both adults and children. The ambassador will also have to be committed to improving services for survivors. Additionally, an individual who can focus on prevention of trafficking beyond deterrence could have a major impact on the field. And, of course, the ambassador must be able to produce a strong annual Trafficking in Persons report. The TIP report is one of the key tools for asserting U.S. global leadership in this space. Foreign governments may complain about their treatment in the report, but they respond when called out in this public manner. Given the diverse interests involved in combatting human trafficking, this diplomat will have to work across stakeholder communities, foreign governments, with the business community and even within the U.S. government so that the TIP report, the TIP office and thus U.S. efforts to combat trafficking are as strong as possible.
With so much ambition and enthusiasm around the fight to end human trafficking and modern slavery, we need an ambassador who can take this momentum and harness it. She or he must steer it toward meaningful, practical change for all victims of modern slavery suffering in terrible conditions; for survivors who are seeking to overcome their exploitation; for businesses with complex supply chains; and for governments seeking to address (or willfully ignore) the current manifestations of slavery within their borders.
The gains of the past 15 years are starting to bear fruit. Now is the time for action and sustainable solutions — and a new TIP ambassador can play an important role in bringing those solutions to reality.
Abramowitz is vice president for policy and government relations at Humanity United, a U.S.-based foundation dedicated to building peace and advancing human freedom.
I was six when a man first touched me. I didn't speak up until I was an adult
by Rebecca Carroll
I never felt like a victim, but long after I grew up, every sexual experience brought me back to that winter night I didn't understand
There's a reason why, when a woman whispers her story of sexual abuse, when she writes about it, when she Tweets about it or carries a mattress around on her back, calls the police or a rape crisis line, I believe her.
The reason is because it happened to me. And you didn't know, because I didn't tell you. I didn't tell anyone.
Uncle “Doug” was an old friend of my parents; he visited our family often and occasionally joined us for holidays. One evening, when I was six, he offered to babysit me and my older sister at his house.
Before bedtime, Uncle Doug told us both a bedtime story about a werewolf who howled at the moon in the bitter cold of winter on top of a snowy hill, just like the hill outside the window over the sink in Uncle Doug's kitchen. He could do these pitch-perfect character voices, and in that way, he was charismatic and appealing to children. The werewolf would howl, he said, his thirst for the blood of children relentless, until one night he came charging through a window of a house trying to catch the little girl inside. The broken glass pierced his throat, and then he was dead, his head hanging over the sill, blood dripping down the wall to the floor.
And then my sister went to bed, and I sat in his small, dimly lit kitchen, on his lap, as he nuzzled my hair and then my ear and neck, and squeezed me hard and soft at the same time. I remember staring fixedly at the window in his kitchen, into the dark snowy night, through a pane of cold glass, the moon casting shadows, a dark tree, listening for the howl of the werewolf, trying not to pay attention to what was actually happening.
What was actually happening is that he was kissing me, whispering in my ear things I didn't understand, and rubbing the tops of my 6-year-old thighs, right where my underwear started, while I sat on his lap.
Afterwards, he took to calling me his “wifey” and signed notes to me: “Love, your hubby”. There was never another physical encounter like the one at his house, but when he visited ours, he would request “private” viewings of me practicing my ballet and leer at me longingly in my leotard and tights; he looked for any opportunity to touch me – my hand, my shoulder, the small of my back. After a couple of years, when I started to understand how inappropriate his behavior was, I refused to have anything to do with him.
I never told my parents anything. My only act of acknowledgement that he did something bad was when I crossed out with a ballpoint pen the “Love, your hubby” at the bottom of a poem he had written in my autograph book when I was eight or nine. The poem: “Tulips in the garden, tulips in the park/But the best place for tulips, is tulips in the dark”.
Uncle Doug did not hurt me physically, but he laid the groundwork for who and what I would become with men throughout my adolescence and into my early adulthood – a wreckage of fondled girlhood looking out a dark window whenever a man was on top of me. His adult hand edging up my six-year-old thigh made it seem natural to me when much older men showed interest or pursued me as a teenager. Or perfectly normal for me to try to seduce a 35-year-old when I was 15.
I never felt like a victim – and I might even still argue that I wasn't victimized enough to claim that label, and instead call myself a product of a premature sexual experience. But for years, every time a man touched me – especially if he was older, even if I pursued him and told myself and him that it was ok – I'd catch myself looking through a non-existent dark window waiting for it to be over. Relationships came and went but never lasted, and I thought both that didn't have anything to tell, and no one to tell it to.
Eventually, I told someone: after about eight months of dating my now-husband, who was curious and emotionally invested in “us” in a way I'd never experienced, I proudly called myself promiscuous. He looked at me with compassion and confusion and said, “Really?”. I confessed: “Not promiscuous in the way you would think.” And then I told him the truth.
And then I told someone else. And someone else after that. I chose to narrate my own story, rather than let the one Doug told persist any longer in my own mind.
Doug, like most abusers, relied on me not telling. They all rely on us not telling – to save their reputations, avoid consequences, and keep on abusing. Those of us who do tell, who let go of the shame we know we're supposed to feel, are in such a minority that it enables the rest of you to disbelieve both those that tell and the existence of those who can't yet. It's hard for you to imagine being in a group of five women and knowing that one was sexually assaulted. It's hard for me to believe that we can just go unheard – our experiences unknown – without consequence.
But all of that is why it's so important for women, for abuse survivors, to tell our stories: because the more of us who do, the more we chip away at the ability to ignore or to choose not to believe. I believe – and I believe that you can choose to as well.
Murder trial begins in the case of Etan Patz, boy who disappeared 35 years ago
by Chris Francescani
NEW YORK — Thirty-five years after New York City first-grader Etan Patz vanished on a short walk to his school bus stop, sparking a national missing children's movement, a Manhattan prosecutor called it a “crime that changed the face of this city forever” in opening arguments Friday in the murder trial of a former bodega clerk whose attorneys say he is mentally disturbed.
“Etan was dead before his mom even knew he was missing [and] then his family and countless others spent the next three decades looking for him,” Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzi-Orbon told jurors on Friday. “That journey ends here.”
Prosecutors say Pedro Hernandez, 53, who was a teenage clerk at a bodega near Etan's bus stop, lured the boy into the store's basement with the promise of a soda, and he then strangled him. Hernandez made a videotaped confession in 2012 and re-enacted the crime for investigators.
Hernandez's arrest, 33 years to the day after Etan disappeared, upended a long-held and widespread belief among many — including law enforcement officials, the boy's parents and a New York civil court judge — that another man was responsible.
For years, the heart-wrenching search for Etan riveted the nation. The blond, blued-eyed child was among the first missing children to appear on a milk carton. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan designated the day he vanished — May 25 — National Missing Children's Day. Yet after more than three decades of investigations, no trace of him has ever been found.
Defense attorneys for Hernandez say he is mentally ill with a very low IQ, and they contend that a videotaped confession he gave police after six hours of interrogation was coerced. Attorney Harvey Fishbein told jurors they would see no forensic, physical or eyewitness evidence linking Hernandez to the disappearance.
Etan had been bugging his parents to let him go alone for days, and on that day in May 1979, his mother relented.
Prosecutors said the little boy apprenticed as a junior carpenter with local handyman Othniel Miller and had earned a dollar working in Miller's basement shop the night before he disappeared. Etan left home the next morning with the dollar, telling his mother he was going to stop at the bodega to buy a soda before getting on the bus. His mother watched him part of the way. He never got on the bus.
When he failed to return home from school, a massive search was launched, and hundreds of police and volunteers blanketed lower Manhattan looking for him. Stan Patz, a commercial photographer, had recently shot a series of poignant photos of his son and soon the boy's cherubic face graced missing posters and newspaper front pages all over New York City, and then across the country.
In 1982, investigators began looking at Jose Antonio Ramos, a mentally disturbed Bronx man. He had dated one of Etan's babysitters, who would later accuse him of molesting her son. Police learned that Ramos had tried to lure some boys into a drainpipe in the Bronx and found pictures of young boys resembling Etan inside the pipe. Ramos also made incriminating statements to authorities, but never admitted to killing the boy — leaving prosecutors without enough evidence to charge him.
In 2001, Etan's parents had their son declared legally dead so they could sue Ramos in civil court. In 2004, the court declared Ramos responsible for Etan's death. Ramos served more than 20 years on a child molestation conviction in an unrelated Pennsylvania case. He has been ordered to testify as a material witness in the Hernandez trial.
Then in 2012, Hernandez was arrested and charged with Etan's murder and kidnapping after a relative called a tip in to police. At least three witnesses — Hernandez's ex-wife, a prayer group leader and a childhood friend — have told investigators that he confessed to them to killing Etan at various times going back to the 1980s. A new witness — identified this month as a fellow inmate — is also expected to testify that Hernandez admitted to killing the child.
“You will see and hear his chilling confession,” Illuzi-Orbon said. She also prepared jurors for apparent inconsistencies in Hernandez's alleged statements over the years, saying he always withheld some information.
“Inconsistencies?” she told jurors at the end of her hour-long opening statement. “Maybe. Or is inconsistency what the defendant wanted and maybe designed these answers to be?”