Knowing the signs of child sex trafficking is everybody’s business. That’s the message Children’s Advocacy Centers nationwide sent during the month of January, officially designated by the White House to be National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. But, you might be thinking, slavery? trafficking? kids?
Yes, the hard reality is that victims of human trafficking include many children and youth who are sexually exploited for commercial gain each year. Child sex trafficking and related crimes—including child pornography—happen in every state and in every type of community. Here in Pennsylvania, our coalition of Children’s Advocacy Centers has identified possible child victims of these types of crimes in at least 31 counties across the Commonwealth.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the average age of entry into the commercial sex industry is 12–14 years. While any child can be a victim of these crimes, some are particularly vulnerable: runaway youth, children in foster care, children with prior histories of sexual abuse, children with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQIA+ communities.
Not in my backyard? Not true.
Our movement had some great opportunities to raise awareness this January. Abbie Newman, RN, JD, is a PennCAC Board member and the CEO of Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center in Montgomery County. On January 21, Abbie joined the Fox29 Philadelphia morning news crew to discuss child sex trafficking. Sharing an infrared image that shows locations of suspected trafficking, Abbie emphasized the dark red cluster that maps higher reporting activity along the I-95 corridor through southeastern Pennsylvania. Her point? Trafficking—and a lot of it—is happening very close to home.
Kids don’t know—and adults don’t know what to look for
Children and youth may not realize they are in dangerous relationships. “Kids are vulnerable,” explained Abbie. “A child may think [their trafficker or exploiter] is a boyfriend or a love interest, or they’re a runaway or in foster care, or they have a prior history of child sexual abuse and they think somebody is caring for them…they don’t realize they are being victimized and exploited.”
Many adults may not recognize trafficking, either. In the Fox29 interview, Abbie shared some of the “red flags” for human trafficking: for example, a student who falls asleep during class or is often absent; shows signs of depression, severe anxiety, or paranoia; or has a “branded” tattoo.
2020 trafficking trends
Disturbing trends suggest the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the commercial sexual exploitation of children. According to Polaris, which operates the national human trafficking hotline, human trafficking has proven to be “pandemic-proof.” Newly released data from reports of trafficking in 2020 suggests children may be at higher risk of being trafficked than ever before.
Despite closures of common trafficking recruitment sites—which include foster homes and schools—sex trafficking continued unabated during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Polaris online recruitment for all forms of trafficking increased by 22% in 2020. Without in-person access to victims, traffickers shifted more of their activities online.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, online child pornography has skyrocketed. Lock-down situations have meant that children and youth are spending more unsupervised time on the internet. In addition, families face increased economic stress. These factors can lead to situations that exploit children—especially when traffickers and other predators are spending more time finding victims on the internet. These individuals may pose as friends, developing relationships with child victims online and sometimes in-person.
Another alarming trend noted by Polaris: traffickers may even be family members—in fact, according to the report, in 2020 family members or caregivers accounted for 31% of known recruiters, an increase of 47% from 2019. Economic stress and drug addiction are two factors that can turn a home environment into a trafficking situation. “You have the opioid crisis, you have COVID,” suggested Abbie in the Fox29 interview. “When people are locked in together there are stressors on a family; there are economic stressors.”
“It’s happening right in front of us.”
Alea Cummings, a trauma-focused therapist at Philadelphia Children’s Alliance, joined KYW Newsradio host Racquel Williams for a January 23 podcast on how sex trafficking affects children in the local community. “It’s more or less happening right in front of us,” shared Alea, who works with children and youth of all ages who have experienced trafficking or other forms of commercial sexual exploitation. “I’ve worked with a number of families where that young person was being trafficked out of her bedroom and the parents had no idea. Honestly, it’s so common.”
Alea described a typical trafficking scenario in which an adolescent or teen meets someone online and develops “what feels like an incredibly important emotional bond” over many months of messaging. With that bond in place, a trafficker can often convince a young person to meet up in person. From there, any number of exploitive situations may follow.
Alea’s advice to parents and caregivers? “Improve the communication you have with your child about their online life. Normalize asking your child about their online life. Ask your kids about their online lives the same way you ask them about school or sports—what games they’re playing, who’re they’re playing with.”
CACs can help identify and prevent trafficking
The Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) model of response to child abuse requires collaboration between disciplines involved in the investigation, prosecution, and follow-up care of child victims and their families. Because of their child-focused and collaborative model, CACs are uniquely positioned to respond to child trafficking cases. Importantly, CAC staff may be the first to notice warning signs that a child’s sexual or physical abuse could be taking place within a trafficking context.
CACs are also important for trafficking prevention. It is well-known that a history of child sexual abuse makes a child more likely to become a trafficking victim. With the intervention and support that CACs provide, children who have experienced sexual abuse may be less vulnerable to future exploitation.