Human Trafficking: What We All Need to Know

Recently, my husband and I attended a seminar regarding the Human Trafficking Task Force here in Rhode Island. The seminar was part of a special series of informational sessions created by the leading rape crisis trauma center located in Providence, Day One, with the intention of educating the New England communities about the important facts surrounding the $3 Billion per year “industry” of human trafficking. We expected the seminar to have important information; what we didn’t expect was just how prevalent this issue is within our country and the ease with which victims fall prey to these predators, called “recruiters,” who look for vulnerable minors in all genders, races, and socioeconomic groups.

Recruiters of minors employ certain tactics when targeting someone for human trafficking. The three major means are by Force (assault, rape, branding, burning, etc.), Fraud (sending a minor on a “job” thought to be one thing when it is another, ie., drug drop is really a “john” expecting a minor to be delivered for sex), and Coercion (buying gifts like jewelry or clothes, giving vast amounts of money, etc.). There are many different forms of trafficking outside of the typical newspaper ad, like “Back Page,” which is now (thankfully) shut down. Minors are trafficked for anything from street work to strip clubs, and massage parlors to social media escort services. These trafficked individuals average between 12-14 years of age and are sold an approximate 6 days per week for an average of 10-15 hours per day. Try to imagine how many “johns” are serviced each day by these minors during a “normal business day”; that thought is staggering. A myth often associated with trafficking is that minors from inner-city or “bad” areas are the most targeted; the truth is, the safer the area the greater the increase in recruiters. Cops don’t generally hang around malls or shopping centers in rural areas, which make it easy for recruiters to target a minor. Minors who run away, at least 1 out of 3, are trafficked within 48 hours of leaving home. Those with a history of physical or sexual abuse are at an even greater risk.

Compounding on that fact is that many of the recruiters are actually female; many victims of trafficking who do not escape the life often become recruiters. Demand fuels this industry, meaning that as long as there are “johns” that want minors delivered for sex, the longer this industry will continue. The greater the exposure of these perpetrators, regardless of prosecution, will decrease demand. The risk factors for someone to be recruited for trafficking, whether minor or adult, are practically identical. Some of these risk factors include, but are not limited to, history of domestic violence or sexual assault, homelessness, lack of resources, poverty, and substance abuse. Many who are recruited into the “life” are often plied with drugs or alcohol in order for their pimps/handlers to keep them compliant, but then develop even more of a devastating addiction because of the constant intake of these substances. The recruiters then become their source for drugs in order to feed the addiction. It is a terrible, vicious cycle that often contributes to why these individuals stay despite terrible abuse at the hands of their recruiters or “johns.”

These recruiters often act in the same predatory way in which a sex offender who targets minors behaves. They have an extensive grooming process like a typical child predator. These recruiters often stake out malls or shopping centers, looking for vulnerable minors who may appear to have an unhappy or unstable home life. They make promises to these targeted individuals of money, clothes, and a home, as well as engage in a type of “honeymoon period,” where the individual appears to actually “fall in love” with their recruiters. For trafficked children, these people provide them with what they consider to be a safe space, which is often what is lacking within their home life. The internet has also made it quite easy for recruiters to find individuals for trafficking. Social media plays a large role; a new person “friends” a minor on Facebook or Instagram, often “liking” something posted by the minor, and will continue to groom the person for an extended period of time with loving behavior and then suggest a meeting in person. Regardless of the way in which they are recruited, there will always be the inevitable behavior shift from the recruiter, where their power and control switch is engaged and the abuse begins.

Once the minor is being trafficked, some signs may appear to help the community identify that a child is being trafficked for sex. Some of those signs are as follows: carrying two cell phones, tatoos (some type of insignia or “bar code”), new clothing (often expensive brands), new boyfriends and/or friends, excessive truancy and/or attempts to run away from home, signs of physical abuse (bruising, sometimes in non-obvious places on the body where clothing may cover), suicidal ideations, cutting, and scripted responses to figures of authority (one-word answers repeated over and over). With such a bleak existence and ongoing abuse, many people often ask why these individuals stay in “the life.” Well, in truth there are many complicated reasons and it is often parallel to the same complicated reasons as to why victims of domestic violence stay with their abusers. It normally takes a person 7-10 times to leave their abusers when experiencing domestic violence. The biggest reason for staying is fear; they fear both arrest and of being alone. Many also do not realize that they are actual victims and have had past negative interactions with the police, child protection services (CPS, DCYF, etc.), or social workers. Compounding on this, the trafficked individual often wants to keep their recruiters or pimps happy and develop a form of Stockholm Syndrome, otherwise known as trauma bonds. Like adults, they rationalize the abuse and isolation and believe that escaping is impossible.

It is important to remember a few basic principles regarding human trafficking. Trafficking is not synonymous with immigration or smuggling; although many victims are transported over state lines to other jurisdictions, transport is not a requirement of trafficking. All genders and races are at risk. Drug addiction often begins after they are recruited for trafficking, and they stay addicted by way of their abusers. Exchange of payment is irrelevant because most trafficked individuals are minors, which makes it a crime regardless of the agreement for payment. Initial “consent” is also irrelevant because a minor is statutorily incapable of consenting to any sexual activity or interaction.

So, given what we now know, what can we do as a community? First things first, ASK QUESTIONS!! The best thing that anyone can do is talk about these crimes with minors and ask questions about their lives in a non-authoritarian and non-judgmental manner. Secondly, ask local law enforcement or representatives what your community is doing to combat human trafficking. Many jurisdictions have actual task forces dedicated to monitoring activity of recruiters in order to make an arrest and bring these individuals to justice. We must keep in mind, however, that prosecution is not the main goal of our jobs in the law enforcement sphere; support for the trafficked individual is the main focus by way of multi-disciplined teams. Lastly, acknowledge that human trafficking is a huge problem in this country and we must all do our part to become educated on the subject in order to combat its effects in the community and on the victims of these crimes.