January is human trafficking awareness month, and as a full-time professional in the movement against human trafficking, I stand in awe of and gratitude for the work being done in to help keep children safe from harm and abuse. Child abuse prevention work is trafficking prevention, and parents, family, and communities all play a role in the prevention of both.
Myths about human trafficking abound, especially regarding trafficking of minors. People frequently assume trafficking is connected to a kidnapping, possibly by a stranger with ties to organized crime, like happened in the movie Taken. While these cases do happen, the vast majority of child trafficking cases do not happen this way. A child might be trafficked by a caregiver or family member, and when this happens substance use disorders may be involved. A trafficker might pose as a boyfriend to gain trust, and use manipulation to exploit that trust, or violence and threats to force the child into sex or labor.
A trafficker might reach vulnerable youth through offering job opportunities that are “too good to be true,” or through insistence on “modeling” opportunities that play on vulnerable adolescents’ desire to be acknowledged by others. While any child can be trafficked, some children are at greater risk of being trafficked due to specific vulnerabilities like poverty, homelessness, and past trauma. Prior sexual abuse history is correlated to trafficking vulnerability; prior sexual abuse history plus experiencing other forms of abuse is strongly correlated.
Human trafficking is complex. The ways in which children come into a trafficking situation are varied. The individual, interpersonal, community, and societal factors that influence each trafficking case are different. And this kind of complexity means we need our prevention efforts to be equally complex and diversified.
What can we do?
- Teach children and youth about healthy relationships, consent, and bodily autonomy from a young age.
- Teach youth how to recognize common tactics exploiters use. Project Starfish has a brief introduction to child sex trafficking on their website: http://projectstarfish.education/Certification/
- Teach youth how to recognize red flags in job offers and employment opportunities.
- Support programs that reduce primary child abuse by reducing caregiver stress and teaching healthy parenting skills.
- Work at alleviating poverty, homelessness, and food insecurity, and advocating for equality and education, and making informed choices about products you purchase, so that all families are less vulnerable.
- Follow the lead of agencies in your area working tirelessly to prevent child abuse and provide treatment and recovery when it has happened.
- Be a protective factor in children’s lives by telling them you believe in them, listening when they speak, and letting them know they deserve unconditional love and respect.
No one of us can single-handedly stop trafficking of children, but each of us can play our part through simple, everyday actions that show our commitment to change. Together, we are a force. Together, we can change our communities and our world.
Anti-Human Trafficking Specialist
NC Coalition Against Sexual Assault