On September 3rd, 2020, a woman from Reading pled guilty to child sexual exploitation and child pornography offenses before a judge sitting in the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. In August 2019, Melissa Madero, 27, was charged with two counts of sex trafficking minors and one count each of distribution, receipt, and possession of child pornography. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Sherri Stephan. Currently, there is no date scheduled for her sentencing hearing.
The FBI’s Philadelphia Division investigated Madero’s case and found that she had been trafficking minors out of Berks County hotels from August to October of 2017. Madero obtained sexually explicit photographs of the minor girls and posted them as advertisements on popular commercial sex websites. Using Reading as the primary location, Madero booked “dates” with sex buyers at local hotels. Reports state Madero typically booked two rooms, one she used to discuss pricing with the buyers and the other used where victims would perform sex acts. Madero also administered powerful drugs to the minor victims to compel them to engage in commercial sex. Reports that the doses of administered drugs were enough to prevent the girls from going to school after nights of being forced to perform sex acts. During October 2017, a mother of one of the minor victims reported her child missing to the Reading Police Department. After this report, Madero assaulted the minor victim after she heard the victim’s mother went to the police.
It is unknown at this time whether Madero was acting alone in recruiting and exploiting victims. According to a 2015 international report, 28% of those convicted for trafficking in persons in 2010-2012 were female. The study explained that women frequently assume the role of recruiter, guard, and/or money collector for commercial sex acts because female victims are more likely to trust other women. Another study, which analyzed over 1,400 offenders arrested for sex trafficking minors from 2010-2015, found that 24.4% of the sex traffickers were female. It also noted that there had been a steady increase in females involved in sex trafficking, and that 55.5% of the female sex traffickers assumed the role of “the bottom girl,” meaning these women may also be a prostituted person, may recruit victims, may enforce rules, may groom victims and may punish victims. Finally, the study found that the female traffickers were more likely to have a prior charge of prostitution than male sex traffickers. It is important to recognize the possibility that women charged with trafficking became involved in the role of offender as consequence of their own victimization. The CSE Institute, along with Shared Hope International, has contributed to the study of the victim-offender overlap, finding that women who identify as “the bottom-girl” believed their role to be a product of physical violence, emotional manipulation, and life-threatening abuse from their own trafficker.
The CSE Institute is encouraged by the FBI and the Eastern District of Pennsylvania’s commitment to recovering trafficking victims and holding sex traffickers accountable. We hope all investigatory bodies make the same commitment so that individuals, like the minor victims in this case, receive justice. The CSE Institute will continue to provide updates to this case.