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Human Trafficking: Is My Child at Risk?

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. During this month, we’d like to call your attention to the human trafficking industry and how it affects all of us.

“Human trafficking is the fastest growing and second largest criminal industry in the world.”[i] Human trafficking is modern day slavery. It’s buying and selling humans. It’s objectification. Traffickers turn people into products or commodities—not just in countries “over there,” but here also!

Right now, TODAY, people—men, women, and children—are illegally traded. They are recruited, controlled and used through deception, force, and coercion. 

Why should you care?

Our children are at risk. Predators target, groom, and recruit them, online and in person, in order to traffic them.

How is this possible?

The demand for pornography motivates sex traffickers. Those who watch pornography contribute to human trafficking. And our children are not only potential consumers of pornography, but also potential targets for sex traffickers.

Yes, our children and their friends are potential targets. In the states, preparing a child for a specific objective (grooming) is more likely to occur than abduction.

Traffickers pursue the vulnerable. This may mean a child living in a home with only one parent, living in an impoverished situation, or one who is neglected and feels lonely. But, let’s face it, most preteens and teens feel insecure and inadequate at some point in their lives. Most face loneliness and a sense of doom periodically. And, yes, some are more susceptible than others. But all of our children, boys and girls alike, are at risk. Predators are smart, smooth, and savvy—understanding the inner workings of their targets.

Parents can help their children spot a potential predator by talking with them about the signs and steps. End Slavery Now and the Polaris Project list the following steps in the grooming process:

1 – Targeting a Victim – Predators troll social media for potential victims, as well as find them in person. Groomers take on many forms. Catfishers, people who use a fake profile on a social media app, send personal messages. Teens slightly older than their intended targets befriend a potential victim in person and pretend to be interested in them. For example, a nineteen-year-old male may flirt with a sixteen-year-old female. Of course, she is flattered and may agree to be his girlfriend simply because he has filled a desire to be liked by a cute, older boy.

2 – Gaining Trust and Information – Groomers pose as someone who cares. They listen and tell the potential victim what they want to hear. Through casual conversation, they learn information to use against the victim later. For example, if a target mentions to their “friend” they can’t relate to their parents, the predator may lure the victim somewhere under the pretense of being more relatable than the parents.

3 – Meeting Needs – Whether it’s telling a child he/she is loved, purchasing a gift, supplying drugs and alcohol, or listening, a predator finds a way to meet a need through the information obtained.

4 – Isolation – It’s at this point the relationship takes a turn. The groomer becomes more controlling by turning the victim against friends and family. The trafficker spends more time with the victim and pulls him/her away from others. Typically, this stage is so subtle the target is unaware it’s happening. A red flag to watch for at this point is the “friend” telling their intended target to meet them somewhere and not to tell anyone.

5 – Exploitation/Abuse – Once the victim has been isolated and is dependent on the trafficker (for drugs, alcohol or other material possessions) or the trafficker is bribing the victim with information or sexually explicit photos, the exploitation or abuse begins. “The way traffickers begin the process of exploiting their victims isn’t always transparent. They may start slowly, by pushing their victim to do things they might be uncomfortable with, like asking them to have sex with a friend once or arranging a date for them as a way to make some quick money. Over time, the victim may be conditioned to believe that what they’re being asked to do is ‘normal.’ They may even feel like they owe their trafficker for all they have done for them or believe their trafficker when they say that the situation is just temporary or a way for them to reach their common goals, such as getting out of the sex trade and starting a family – or keeping the current, abusive family together.”[ii]

6 – Maintaining Control – Control could include continued isolation, extortion, threats, violence, or fear.

For an example of exploitation occurring through a simple conversation, download A21’s student safety guide. Use the guide as a resource to talk with your child. This Parent Guide for Teens includes safety tips to discuss with your teen. This video is a great depiction of how easily sextortion can begin.

As with all difficult conversations, we want to broach the subject with the appropriate amount of concern and caution. In other words, don’t freak out! Let your preteens and teens know you’re aware of the dangers and available to talk. Ask them questions like: Have you heard of human trafficking? What do you know about it? Has anyone you haven’t met in person sent you a private message? Do you feel as if you are in danger? Ask if they have questions. If you don’t know the answer, do some research together.

There is hope. Our children are intelligent and, with some guidance, will set boundaries regarding technology when they understand the dangers and are motivated to stay safe.

Keep talking! Your children and your relationship with them are worth the effort.

Barb Winters

Barb Winters is a Sexual Risk Avoidance Specialist, author of Sexpectations: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Healthy Relationships, and founder of Hopeful Mom.