“When the perpetrator is the parent” 

A hyper-awareness of child sex trafficking, by all accounts, would imply that this world has somehow become safer for children because people are speaking more openly about the pervasiveness of commercial sexual exploitation of children and child sexual abuse.

But, the sad reality is, that is not the case. As more people begin to focus on the “stranger danger” myths and kidnapping of children, the less likely they are to see how child sex trafficking can operate in reality.

Anti-human trafficking organizations have designed many of their programs around the grooming tactics of traffickers, and how they are able to recruit and coerce or force victims into commercial sex and labor. Prevention programs can be developed around children understanding personal boundaries, consent and healthy relationships that can empower children to steer clear of traffickers and invariably reduce the amount of perpetration.

But what if a child’s parent or caregiver is the trafficker? What happens then? 

Familial Trafficking

In the United States, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, the second leading way a person is recruited into sex trafficking is by a family member. The fourth leading way a person is recruited into labor trafficking is by family, as well.

The number of people trafficked by family is likely higher than the statistics indicate, because the victims are usually young children who may not even realize that what is happening is wrong, don’t have the words to describe it, and don’t know who to tell.

After all, when a child’s caregiver exploits them, they would have no one to really turn to.

The study, “Familial Sex Trafficking of Minors: Trafficking Conditions, Clinical Presentation and System Involvement,” highlights that in family-facilitated sex trafficking, 64.5 percent of the traffickers in the limited study were mothers, with 32.3 percent being the fathers of the victims and a small 3.2 percent being other family members.

In the cases where the mother was the trafficker, around 65 percent had a second trafficker that was a romantic partner or acquaintance also cited as a trafficker.

According to the study “Family-Facilitated Juvenile Sex Trafficking,” when mothers were the trafficker, the purposes behind that abuse revolved around substance use issues; they were a madam who was already operating a brothel or the mothers were “training” their children in the ways of the life because the mothers were also being trafficked, as well.

Caregivers and family members who are trafficking their children operate in similar ways to other traffickers – they use threats, coercion and their authority to keep their control.

Toni McKinley, familial sex trafficking survivor and author of “What Happened to Me?!: Healing for Sex Trafficking Survivors,” describes this mode of victimization this way, “It is an absolute betrayal that a relative is so evil to sell you for profit. Most relatives are selling girls for their drug habit. Some sell them because of poverty. And others sell them because they think it is cool to have someone like you to pass around to their friends for cash.” 

Effects on the Children

Properly identifying exploitation within the family is imperative to getting the appropriate services to the child who suffered the abuse. 

Exploitation in commercial sex results in significant psychological trauma for children.

“Children exploited in commercial sex are at a high risk of continued involvement in commercial sex in their adulthood. Prior research has found associations of CSEC (commercial sexual exploitation of children) with posttraumatic stress disorder, complex trauma, anxiety and depression, suicidality, substance abuse, distrust of others, and social isolation,” according to “Familial Sex Trafficking of Minors: Trafficking Conditions, Clinical Presentation and System Involvement.”

Children will also have difficulty with self-regulation, interpersonal relationships, with potential for long-term psychiatric and physical problems.

Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk said it best, “When trauma emanates from within the family, children experience a crisis of loyalty and organize their behavior to survive within their families.”

What We Can Do

Familial trafficking is grim. Outcomes for many children who are caught in this exploitation have the potential to be grim, as well. But there are some things that we can do. 

All pre-school teachers, educators, social workers and counselors need to be trained on what commercial sexual exploitation of children is and how to identify indicators in those children. There also needs to be a seamless response in place, from disclosure to placement. 

It is imperative that the response be trauma-informed and resources and support are offered to the child victim. 

We as a society say that children are our most valuable resource. We need to demonstrate that by taking stronger steps to protect them from exploitation.

Melinda Sampson is the community outreach coordinator for NC Stop Human Trafficking. She can be contacted at melinda@ncstophumantrafficking.org

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