Content Advisory: This article contains sensitive information related to safety of children. If you suspect someone is a victim of sex trafficking, call your local law enforcement or The National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Young people today in our society face an onslaught on safety issues, but one of the most horrific is the issue of sex trafficking of children. A staggering estimated 240,000 to 325,000 children are at risk of being victimized each year.
Offenders are skilled manipulators, first gaining the trust of adults around the child, says Jerome Elam, president and CEO of Trafficking in America Task Force and a survivor of child sex trafficking. Once the situation escalates into sexual abuse, they manipulate the victim into thinking it’s their fault, resulting in the child becoming incredibly ashamed, fearful and overwhelmed with the guilt of what happened.
Elam was first sexually abused by his stepfather at the age of five-years-old. His stepfather trafficked him for seven years.
Any child can become a trafficking victim, but research has shown that children with increased vulnerabilities are more often targeted according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Some high-risk groups include: children who are chronically missing or frequently run away; children who have experienced child sexual abuse; children who live with someone with significant substance abuse issues; and children who identify as LBTBQ and have been disowned or stigmatized by their family.
Many traffickers use websites with chat and messaging features, like Snapchat and online gaming platforms, to prey on young people and lure them into meeting in person.
“With the advent of the internet, there’s been an explosion in terms of kids that are being exploited by human traffickers,” says Elam. “It’s just easier for them to jump on a computer with an avatar and go after these kids.”
The scope of predatory online activity continues to grow exponentially, with online groups using encrypted technologies to cloak their identities and circumvent law enforcement. According to an investigation by The New York Times, in 2018 tech companies received 18.4 million reports of child sexual abuse imagery, which included more than 45 million online photos and videos. In comparison, around 1 million reports were received in 2014.
“As the methods of perpetrators become more sophisticated, it’s more important than ever that everyone who comes in contact with young people gets educated on the signs of child sex trafficking and feels empowered to act,” says Elizabeth Fowlkes, senior vice president, youth development at Boys & Girls Clubs of America. “Clubs are a part of the solution by virtue of providing a safe, inclusive environment where kids feel seen and heard by Club staff and their peers.”
Here are five key ways you can help spot the signs and prevent child sex trafficking, adapted from prevention efforts designed by the U.S. Department of State and leading child experts:
- Education. Increase your general knowledge and awareness of child sex trafficking, which can help identify potential sex trafficking victims and link them to professional advocates. Download our Child Sex Trafficking Prevention Guide to learn more.
- Recognize the Signs. Recognizing the warning signs of child sex trafficking increases the ability to identify potential victims and provide help. Some red flags include: unexplained school absences; the presence of multiple cell phones, burner phones or erased call logs; multiple fake IDs; a young person appearing malnourished or hungry, or dressed inappropriately for weather conditions; bruises or other signs of physical trauma; signs of drug addiction; and, presence of a noticeably older, controlling or abusive “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.”
- Report Your Suspicions. Always report suspicions of child sexual abuse. Call your local law enforcement or The National Human Trafficking Hotline.
“Regardless of whether you are a parent or not, you can still make a huge difference – just by being watchful of what’s going on,” says Elam. “If you see a child that you feel is in distress, I mean they're anxious, upset, they’re asking for help or assistance – there’s no wrong call to law enforcement or the National Human Trafficking Hotline.”
- Raise Awareness. It takes a village to raise a child, and also to protect them. Raise awareness in your family, among your peers and in your community on ways to recognize the signs and risk factors associated with child sex trafficking. Download and share resources developed by the Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign, including informational pamphlets, toolkits and key cards featuring trafficking indicators and a tip line.
- Take Action. Become an advocate for victims and potential victims.
“When you talk to someone who you suspect is being trafficked, ask them if they need help, if someone is hurting them, if someone is making them do things they don’t want to do, or is there someone touching them in their private areas,” says Elam. Phrasing it in that way is critical because many victims may not understand what the word “trafficking” means.
If you see something, say something – whether that be reporting suspected trafficking activities to law enforcement or offering direct assistance to the victim.
For more information on how to prevent child sex trafficking, download our Child Sex Trafficking Prevention Guide.
This article was adapted from an original blog post that appeared on ClubExperience.blog.
A special thank you to Jerome Elam who shared his expertise in an effort to advise Boys & Girls Clubs of America and local Clubs on our anti-trafficking efforts.