January was national Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and Attorney General Tim Fox took the opportunity to tout his office’s anti-trafficking initiatives. There’s a problem, though: The human trafficking statistics on Fox’s website have no basis in fact.

Here’s an excerpt: “In the United States alone, nearly 300,000 children are trafficked for sex every year … The average age of girls forced into the sex trade is between the ages of 12-14. It’s estimated that fewer than 2% are ever rescued or leave ‘the life.’”

Fox’s office sourced the 300,000 and 12-14 numbers to a 2001 study by University of Pennsylvania researchers Richard Estes and Neil Weiner, which actually says that 300,000 children in the U.S. are at risk of being trafficked. Estes himself has said the study is outdated at best and shouldn’t be cited. The Crimes Against Children Research Center has pleaded, “PLEASE DO NOT CITE THESE NUMBERS” in a 2008 factsheet.

The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler did a thorough fact check showing how “at risk” became conflated with “victims,” and how the 12-14 age doesn’t hold up. As a result, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., stopped citing the numbers.

To support the claim that “fewer than 2% are ever rescued,” Fox’s office pointed to a story on the Daily Signal, a conservative publication of the Heritage Foundation, that contains no reference to sex trafficking rescues in the U.S. All three of these numbers are repeated as fact in a Missoulian editorial last February.

A group that lobbies on behalf of sex workers and sex trafficking victims in Alaska successfully amended state law to provide immunity from prostitution charges for anyone who reports a violent crime, if doing so informs law enforcement that they were engaged in prostitution. A similar practice has recently been adopted in San Francisco, as advocates for trafficking victims seek immigration reform, better services and legal immunity. It would behoove the officials charged with fighting trafficking to take a cue and pay more attention to what they’re really fighting.

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