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The Trafficker in Sheep’s Clothing

This article is part 5 of 8 in the column Children of the State

Danielle was 14 when she met the man who would soon become her worst nightmare.

“I was adopted by a good Christian family,” she tells me during a recent interview. “I had a great relationship with my father. But when I hit puberty, I was molested and my mom didn’t help. So I ran away.”

Not long after, while waiting for the bus, a man approached her. “He offered me a place to stay, food, all the things I needed. He pumped me full of drugs, then threw me in a room with a bunch of guys and I was for sale.” The man she thought was her knight in shining armor was a human sex trafficker in disguise.

Danielle’s story isn’t unique. Child sex trafficking is astonishingly common in the United States. At least 100,000 children are being sold for sex right now (US Department of State), and given the widespread underreporting the real number is probably much higher. The advocacy group Justice Society reports that this business is so lucrative that it earns traffickers $32 billion worldwide each year. Fortunately, help is available. The National Human Trafficking Hotline fielded 26,727 calls this year alone, resulting in over 7,500 cases reported.

The commercial sexual exploitation of children is happening in every state and every major community. A trafficked child could be your client, your patient, or the girl at the bus stop. How can this be happening in America? Highly experienced pimps and the lax enforcement of laws designed to protect children are to blame, among other factors. Traffickers fill the increasing demand for child sex in the United States. They prey on vulnerable youths, especially those living in foster care and group homes (which represent up to 86 percent of all victims [Polaris Project]), runaways, the mentally and physically disabled, and those with a history of sexual abuse.

Now an advocate for trafficking survivors, Danielle is uniquely knowledgeable about children’s entrapment. “The malls, train stations, and bus stops are common places for recruiting,” she explains. “Men will actually hang at the train station looking for runaway kids. Facebook is also a huge problem. Girls will add men they don’t really know to their Facebook account, and these guys will ‘Like’ their pictures, follow them. They hone in on the most insecure, playing on their insecurities.” Traffickers posing as youths or friendly adults connect with unmonitored children through interactive video games and social media apps that don’t require personal identification.

The commercial sexual exploitation of children is a big business, and each trafficking ring is a well-organized machine that includes individuals assigned to managing the ring, recruiting new victims, and transporting children to escape detection from law enforcement.

“There are actually forums online where you can learn how to be a pimp,” Danielle reveals. “These guys are trained. They have lists of group homes to target, with their addresses and phone numbers. They are calculated. It’s premeditated.”

Traffickers attract customers through advertisements on websites such as Backpage.com, infiltrating blogs and other social networks, and word of mouth. In Danielle’s experience, the clients come from all walks of life. Even law enforcement and other public safety officials are part of the vast array of customers exchanging money for sex with children.

Traffickers are savvy, zoning in on the most vulnerable. Children are lured into the sex trade at a very young age—on average, 12 to 14 years old for girls and 11 to 13 for boys (Jordheim). Some populations are more highly exploited, such as racial minorities, members of the LGBTQ community, and the undocumented. Danielle explains why: “LGBTQ victims have the fewest resources. So do immigrants; they don’t have documentation so they fear law enforcement and have a hard time getting a job. Their pimps tell them they will call ICE” (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) if they attempt to leave.

Composing up to half of all trafficked children (US Department of State), boys are also recruited to the sex trade, but they don’t easily come forward. “Police don’t believe them,” Danielle sighs. “Boys are discouraged from reporting, as are gay victims. Law enforcement discourages them, because they have their own biases.”

Trafficked children are being sold an average of six days a week, 10 to 15 times a day (DayOne) in many settings: massage parlors and strip clubs, on the streets, in pornography—even in private homes.

To prevent the sex trafficking of children, experts say we have to shift the focus from reducing the supply to attacking the demand for child sex. Demand Abolition points out that “Sex buyers drive the illegal sex trade. Without their money, pimps and traffickers have zero incentives. No buyers = no business.”

We need to get tough on this issue using multiple approaches. Traffickers and johns can be targeted through police stings and be given harsher prison sentences for their crimes. Tougher legislation can step up pressure on internet sites such as Backpage.com to block trafficking ads and warn men of the severe penalties for exchanging money for sex. Anti-trafficking awareness campaigns that promote the concept that “real men don’t buy sex” are effective too.

As with all forms of sexual assault, the active bystander is a powerful agent for change. Adults need to be alert for the signs that a child is being trafficked, particularly those working with youths in the foster care system. Look for a combination of these warning signs.

The child

  • can’t leave home or come and go without permission;
  • has little or no money, food, medical care, identification, and possessions;
  • is plagued with persistent anxiety and depression and extremely fearful of law enforcement;
  • is often sick or injured;
  • moves frequently and is unfamiliar with his or her surroundings; or
  • changes his or her story often.

Danielle strongly advises parents to get educated and be on the lookout for potential predators. Closely monitoring their child’s use of all media is a must. “Most victims have parents that are just not involved. They don’t have proper supervision. Education, awareness, supervision, and action. That’s what we need.”

If you suspect a child is being trafficked, or may be at risk, act! The National Human Trafficking Hotline (888-373-7888) and the BeFree Textline (text HELP to BeFree, or 233733) are staffed 24 hours a day to provide help to survivors and connect to local services. (Experts advise never to approach a trafficker or talk to a victim in his presence. Get advice on the best way to intervene.) There are dozens of ways to help fight trafficking. The time to start is now.

Suzanne Alden is a sexual assault prevention advocate and survivor. Drawing on her experiences and knowledge of powerful personal healing strategies, she writes on the topic of sexual violence and has given dozens of talks to audiences throughout New England about the potential for bystander intervention on sexual assault prevention. Suzanne has degrees in sociology, women’s studies, and accounting and works in higher education.


You can reach Suzanne at AskAndTellForChange@gmail.com and on Facebook.

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