Many people in the United States who are being trafficked for sex are U.S. citizens, and the average age at which victims are first trafficked is between 11 and 14. Both wealthy and poor children are at risk of becoming victims of human trafficking, and often the pimps that first solicit victims to be trafficked do not act the way you would expect based on popular perceptions of sex trafficking. Parents are often unaware their child has been targeted by a trafficker until it is too late, so it is imperative for parents to understand exactly how traffickers work to recruit the most vulnerable.
How Do Human Traffickers Target Children?
Young children and teens are targeted in their neighborhoods, at school, at the mall and other popular teen hangouts, and on college campuses. Social media and the Internet are common tools used to recruit children and teens and turn them into sex trafficking victims. While runaways and homeless teens are frequent targets, children in all types of family situations are vulnerable to the manipulations of traffickers.
Traffickers frequently become involved with children and teens by offering attention and care. The specific processes used can vary depending upon the age of the child, the child’s family situation, and a number of other factors.
When targeting homeless or runaway teens, traffickers can make promises of food and shelter. The child can be manipulated into “survival sex,” turning to prostitution to get food and shelter.
Vulnerable children and teens with changing family situations or troubled relationships with parents may also be targeted by a sex trafficker who plays the role of father or lover. Care is offered, flattery and attention are directed at the child or teen, and the target may be given gifts or made to feel valued and appreciated. Eventually, the trafficker begins to make suggestions of prostitution and the trusting child or teen agrees in order to keep the trafficker’s love and attention.
In other cases, the trafficker refrains from making any type of sexual advances as he works to earn the trust of the child. Without making advances, the trafficker is able to gain the child or teen’s trust without drawing the attention of adults. The child is slowly manipulated, and is made to trust the trafficker and feel fear or distrust of others. The child or teen will listen to the trafficker, and can end up leaving his or her family and becoming a trafficking victim.
Drugs are a common tool used by human traffickers as well. The trafficker will get the child or teen hooked on drugs, and the addiction will be used as leverage to force the young person into prostitution.
Identifying Human Trafficking Victims
Determining when a child or teen is being targeted by a trafficker can be a challenge. Some red flags include:
- Having a boyfriend or girlfriend who is significantly older.
- Unexplained bruises or attempts to hide bruising or scarring.
- Coached or rehearsed responses to questions.
- Uncharacteristically promiscuous behavior or unexpected references to sexual situations.
- A sudden change in personal hygiene, relationships, or clothing choices.
- Frequently running away from home, or unexplained absences from home or school.
Parents, teachers, and interested adults need to be aware of possible signs of trafficking and should step in to determine if a child or teen may be the target of someone involved in the sex trafficking trade. Victims need full protection under the law, and there are resources and organizations set up to protect trafficking victims and help them to rebuild their lives. An experienced attorney with knowledge of human trafficking can also provide information and advice on laws applicable to the crime of human trafficking.