Human Trafficking: Not What You Think

Human Trafficking: Not What You Think

If you've ever seen the movie "Taken," your view of human trafficking might be warped like mine was.

Girls kidnapped and kept in cages. In foreign countries. Never seeing the light of day.

While all this made for a thrilling, Liam Neeson film, it doesn't match reality. Those things can be true of trafficking victims, but they’re not the norm. Experts tell us that human trafficking is often much more subtle. It happens beneath our own noses in our own US cities. Victims can be trafficked by night and in schools by day. They are boys and girls, of all ages, socioeconomic statuses, and sexual orientations.

"America – THE LAND OF THE FREE – doesn’t seem to be so free these days. It is estimated that at least 100,000 American children are being exploited through pornography or prostitution [child sex trafficking] every year in the United States."[1]

Made in the USA

In my first few months as an advocate, I found a book about trafficking in my office. It's called "Made in the USA: The Sex Trafficking of America's Children," by Alisa Jordheim. I was new to the social work field and wanted to learn as much as possible. This seemed like a great place to begin. So I started reading.

Though each chapter made me weep, I knew I had to keep reading. As my heart broke more and more, my passion for justice swelled. I had to educate myself on this issue that plagues our society and steals the innocence of our children. Because ignoring it would do nothing. And nothing is not an option.

The book is a collaboration of survivors' stories, all very different trafficking experiences. Some were exploited by relatives, others by a boyfriend or friend, others by strangers. Some were physically held captive, but many were psychologically trapped. All felt that they had no other option than to follow their pimps' or captors' orders.

These brave and broken children boldly shared their stories so that the rest of us might know the truth about human trafficking. So that our blinders would fall off that we might see the victims crying out to us. So that we would stop thinking that our communities are exempt from such a horrific crime. And so that we can prevent future tragedies.

If you think trafficking is an issue that only happens overseas, think again.

If you think it only happens to girls, read the statistics.

If you think the children in your life are immune to its reaches, please read this book.

There are children in our schools who are suffering more than we could ever imagine. Boys and girls with scars and trauma worse than our wildest nightmares.

Our youth are not safe, because we live in the Midwest. It happens here. Our kids are not protected simply because we love them. We need to talk about the dangers.

I don’t mean to be a downer or to paint a hopeless picture. All our kids are not doomed to fall prey to traffickers. But this issue is real, and it is hurting real people in our communities. It won’t go away by ignoring it.

So what do we do?

According to the former president and CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, “The only way not to find this in any American city is simply not to look for it.”[2]

As a society, we need to educate ourselves. We must learn to detect the warning signs. "If we do not recognize the vulnerability of American children, a trafficker will."[3]

Traffickers look for vulnerabilities like loneliness, poverty, history of abuse, or broken homes. They exploit these weaknesses by offering kids what they desperately want. They offer love, jobs, money, security, or attention. They go after both boys and girls of all ages, races, and sexual orientations.

As parents and other trusted adults, we should first be present in children’s lives. Invest in them. Ask questions and care about their lives. Children who know adults care about them are less likely to look for love in the places traffickers lurk.

Second, we can’t ever take disclosures of abuse lightly. A common theme I saw in many of these stories is that the kids had cried out to someone – a teacher, parent, or relative – and received disbelief or apathy. What seemed like a minor issue to that adult was actually a living hell for the child. Children often disclose only a fraction of what they experience. They are “testing the waters,” waiting to see how the adult reacts. Or they are so traumatized they don’t know how to talk about the abuse. Either way, whatever small shred of a story they offer must be taken seriously.

Third, we can actively speak out against the sex trade. We can inform potential buyers of sex that the “prostitutes” they are engaging with might be victims of sex trafficking. We can educate schools, communities, and businesses on the realities of human trafficking. We can support organizations that are already fighting human trafficking.

Yes, you are just one person. You can’t overcome this evil alone. But as a community, we can stand up against it. If every person who cared did something, our efforts together could make a difference.

Your part doesn't have to be huge. Let your passion lead you to do whatever is realistic for you. Combined with the efforts of millions of others around the globe, there will be an impact. Children will be protected, captives released, traffickers punished, and lives saved.

Don’t let the fear of failing stop you from trying. We need everyone in this fight. The safety of our children is worth it.

[1] Jordheim, Alisa. Made in the USA: the Sex Trafficking of America's Children, HigherLife Publishing and Marketing, Inc., 2014, p. 13.

[2] Allen, Ernie. Made in the USA: the Sex Trafficking of America's Children by Alisa Jordheim, HigherLife Publishing and Marketing, Inc., 2014, p. 13.

[3] Jordheim, Alisa. Made in the USA: the Sex Trafficking of America's Children, HigherLife Publishing and Marketing, Inc., 2014, p. 10.