PHOENIX -- A major push is under way to change attitudes about why many of our teens end up in such terrible trouble. A Valley woman's own harrowing childhood suggests many are quite predictably acting out of desperation.
Raped at Age 6
Amira Birger's story of lost innocence began when she was a first-grader. They are details she now shares with chilling detachment.
"I was raped for the first time when I was 6 by a family member," Birger said. "I didn't tell my mom until much later because I thought it was all my fault. I don't remember ever playing with dolls again after that point."
Experts say a majority of the girls who wind up victims of child sex-trafficking were sexually abused as children. But being sold for sex can also result from a childhood punctuated by physical or emotional abuse, parental drug abuse or neglect. For many, victimization becomes a pattern. After the rape, Amira was molested for years by a different abuser.
The real trouble often begins in adolescence, at age 12 or 13.
"I started sneaking drinks, I started cutting, I started having suicidal thoughts," Birger said. "I tried committing suicide several times. I was really acting out in school, getting D's and F's all the time. And started running away on and off. My parents didn't understand what was going on, and I was just this rebellious kid."
This is perhaps Birger's most urgent message: What looks like a "rebellious kid" may in fact be a teen responding to childhood trauma.
"A Perfect Victim"
By age 15, Birger was regularly using drugs. Her sense of identity shattered, she was a perfect target for a pimp.
Arizona State University researcher Kristi Hickle counsels sex-trafficking victims and said that while every girl's story is different, certain risk factors besides sex abuse are also common.
"A parent who's not there [or] they're on drugs, it's kind of being on the run, not in school, using drugs, a lot of these things that bring a girl to a place where she's the most vulnerable for a trafficker to say, 'You're a perfect victim for me,'" Hickle said.
Now a Survivor
Birger is a survivor, now 27. But only after years of intense therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder did she realize that abusers are drawn to those who are already victims.
"Now, looking back, I kind of feel like I had 'Come rape me' written on my forehead," she said. "Every time I'd bring myself up, I'd get taken back down. And so the last time, I kind of went off the deep end and I was homeless for a year, and using [methamphetamines] really bad."
As bad as it was, Birger said she has no regrets. But she is determined that her painful journey will be a catalyst for change.
"It is so important to me and society and the community to pay attention to what's going on with these kids," she said.
Birger is getting her master's degree at ASU starting this fall. She mentors victims of child sex trafficking and is an outspoken advocate for victims of all childhood abuse. Birger generously shares her story with others, hoping to educate teens and those who regularly come into contact with them. She is available for speaking opportunities through her website, http://tofindyourvoice.org.
Check these websites for more information about child sex trafficking: