Jeffrey Epstein, accused of abusing and trafficking young women and girls for decades, died by apparent suicide Saturday morning while in federal custody. His death sent shockwaves through both the law enforcement and victim’s advocacy communities, because it means he will not have to stand trial for his crimes. Epstein’s cowardly act will slow justice down, but it should not stop it from happening.
The opposite of cowardice is bravery, and that is what Epstein’s survivors have shown during this process as they have fought to hold their abusers accountable. I can’t help but see the braces in this photo of then 16-year-old Michelle Licataand wonder how anyone who assaulted her could have thought she was a willing adult. I have worked with more than 1,500 survivors of sex trafficking. Every single one deserved justice — but few have received it. The same is true for the dozens of young girls allegedly abused and exploited by Jeffrey Epstein and his network.
As with all of these kinds of cases, it took tremendous courage for the survivors, now adults, to came forward. The wounds of these crimes may never fully heal, and they will certainly now suffer longer than Epstein, who in his final act potentially robbed them of the chance to achieve full closure. “I am angry Jeffrey Epstein won’t have to face his survivors of his abuse in court," Jennifer Araoz, who accused Epstein of raping her when she was 15 after she was recruited outside her New York City high school, said in a statement. "We have to live with the scars of his actions for the rest of our lives, while he will never face the consequences of the crimes he committed, the pain and trauma he caused so many people. Epstein is gone, but justice must still be served. I hope the authorities will pursue and prosecute his accomplices and enablers, and ensure redress for his victims.”
Araoz is absolutely right: There are still many more who should be held accountable for their roles in recruiting and abusing these young girls. It’s possible that some survivors will be able to file civil suits against Epstein’s estate and against the people who allegedly enabled the abuse. The U.S. prosecutor in Manhattan has already said that his office’s investigation into the charges against Epstein is ongoing. Just as in the #MeToo movement, it’s imperative that survivors of sexual abuse and sex trafficking know that they will be believed if they come forward, and that the pain of going through a trial will pay off. And so, survivors everywhere are likely watching what happens next.
Young people who have experienced life in foster care or homelessness, like many of the girls allegedly targeted by Epstein and his associate Ghislaine Maxwell, are at very high risk. Many struggle with depression and other emotional health challenges as a result of child sexual abuse, neglect, or the traumas of poverty. Traffickers and abusers can easily sense these vulnerabilities and take advantage of them. But traffickers only thrive if there is a demand for purchasing what they are selling. Take a look at how Virginia Guiffre says she was recruited by Epstein’s associate. And it is not just Guiffree. Butlers and flight attendants on Epstein’s so-called “Lolita Express” have reported observing many, many young girls coming and going from the trafficker’s homes, island and jets.
Epstein’s wealth, privilege and high-powered associates allowed him to buy time. Lawyers secured for him a slap on the wrist when his alleged behavior was first revealed back in the early 2000s. The unconventional and possibly illegal non-prosecution agreement struck between his lawyers and prosecutors allowed Epstein to continue his lifestyle — and allegedly his abuse — for another ten years. Epstein’s death must not stop the Department of Justice’s investigation into this agreement, and the men who made it and signed it.
Getting justice right, even if it’s long overdue, is imperative if we actually want to combat sex trafficking. It goes hand in hand with providing specialized services, safe housing, restitution, therapy, education and long-term vocational empowerment. And seeking justice should not weigh heaviest on the shoulders of those survivors, like Michelle Licata, who have spoken out. The criminal justice system must step forward, and the rest of us must demand it.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, there were 2,762 reports of sex trafficking.pdf) of minors in 2017. While that may seem like a high number, most victims do not come forward, and many more do not even know that they are victims. In fact, we still routinely arrest victims of sex trafficking in this country, including children. We are not even close to the tip of the iceberg that is child sex trafficking in this country.
Traffickers offer false promises of love, safety and a better life, only to instead deliver confusing and trauma-bonding abuse. It is not an exaggeration to say that there are thousands of similar victims in America out there watching this case and wondering if they will be heard, believed and protected if they come forward. So ask yourself: How can we as a society ask them to stand up and speak out if we are willing to let a wealthy and connected alleged sex trafficker effectively evade justice by suicide? Many questions still remain about what happened in this case. But what is perfectly clear is that this should not — this cannot — be the end.
Andrea Powell is the founder and executive director of Karana Rising, a nonprofit providing care and supportive programs to support survivors of human trafficking in reaching their fullest potential. She is also the founder of FAIR Girls
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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