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Advocates Say Cyntoia Brown's Case Is Part Of The 'Sexual Abuse-To-Prison' Pipeline

In a moment when the country is grappling with issues of sexual misconduct and the abusive treatment of women and girls, a murder case involving a then-teenager who says she was forced into prostitution is back in the national spotlight more than a decade after the key events took place.

A number of A-list celebrities, including Rihanna, LeBron James and Kim Kardashian West, have taken an interest in the case of Cyntoia Brown, a 29-year-old serving a life sentence for the murder of a Nashville man in 2004.

Brown says she was forced into prostitution when she was 16 and repeatedly raped and abused by her pimp. That year, a 43-year-old man picked her up in a parking lot and took her to his home for sex, where she says she thought he was going to kill her for resisting him. That's when she fatally shot him.

When she was tried as an adult in the murder, the jury rejected her claim of self-defense. Now, though, advocates say her case should be reopened so she can be seen as the victim of sex trafficking that she was.

Along with broader issues about the justice system, advocates are also highlighting this case as an example of what they call the "sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline." Yasmin Vafa, the executive director of the human rights organization Rights4Girls, tells NPR's Michel Martin about her research into the "pipeline" and why the way the criminal justice system treats victims of human trafficking needs to change.

Interview Highlights

On the importance of Cyntoia Brown's case

I think that what is interesting about Cyntoia's case is that she was arrested back in 2004, which was a year before our federal anti-trafficking laws even contemplated the fact that Americans could even be victims of sex trafficking. And so now of course we know all these years later that not only are American citizens able to be victims of sex trafficking, but in fact the vast majority of sex trafficking victims here in the United States are U.S.-born and are U.S. citizens.

Many of them, like Cyntoia, are girls of color, many of them have suffered multiple instances of childhood sexual abuse, have had some interaction with the foster care system. And so her story really shows a narrative of so many young women and girls that we know.

On the 2015 report examining the "sexual abuse-to-prison" pipeline

In a number of states that had available data looking at girls in the [prison] system, the overwhelming majority of girls behind bars had suffered instances of sexual and physical violence. In some states like South Carolina it was 81 percent of girls; in places like Oregon it was upwards of 93 percent. So when we looked at those high rates of traumas together, with the most common offenses that girls were being arrested for, it really made clear that it was that victimization that was driving the abuse.

So sometimes that looks like a young girl who's running away from an abusive home or foster care situation who is then arrested for the offense of running away. And sometimes that looks like a girl who is engaging in substance abuse to cope with the years of trauma. And in the most extreme cases, it looks like what happened to Bresha Meadows, what happened to Cyntoia Brown — in the case that they were actually forced to take more extreme measures to protect themselves as a result of society essentially failing them.

And I think that it's not a coincidence that the whole issue of Cyntoia Brown has made a kind of resurgence during the wake of these "me too" disclosures because I think it shows what "me too" looks like for some of our most vulnerable girls.

NPR Digital News Intern Isabel Dobrin produced this story for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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