Due to the pandemic, families are staying closer to home. Many parentsbelieve if their children are under their roof, they are safer — not only from Covid-19 — but other dangers like exposure to drugs and alcohol, violence and bullying.
Not so fast.
An uncertain future coupled with worries about education and child care are at the forefront of parents’ minds. The fear of human trafficking is taking a backseat to more immediate concerns. After all, nowadays, kids are in their bedrooms or just outside the front door most of the time. No one’s going to try to lure children away when adults are only a room away.
Children and teens may be more at risk now than ever before.
Defining Human Trafficking
A lot of people are confused on what human trafficking is and how it’s defined. One misconception is victims are imported and exported to and from different countries by strangers. While that may be true in some cases, victims can be trafficked in their own neighborhoods by family or friends. The United Nations defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, harboring, or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud or coercion) for an improper purpose including forced labor or sexual exploitation.
Advice from a Human Trafficking Expert
In an interview with Nita Belles, founder of www.inourbackyard.org , Belles tells me parents are lulled into complacency by thinking, “It will never happen to my child.”
Hopefully, it won’t, but parents can take action to lower the odds.
According to Belles, victim advocate and spokesperson on human trafficking, the number one gateway for human traffickers to their victims is their cellphone. “If your child has a smartphone and has an online presence, research says there is a 100% chance a predator has seen your child.”
That statistic should make alarm bells go off in every parents’ head.
Kids are online now more than ever as many summer camps, organized athletics and educational programs have been cancelled. Belles says, “Sites like TikTok, YouTube, and other popular gaming and social media websites are used by predators to find and connect with their victims.”
While many parents are laid-off or on furlough, human traffickers haven’t shut down their businesses. They are ramping up their efforts as the under-age presence online increases.
The following is advice Ms. Belles gives parents to reduce the risk of their children being victims of human trafficking:
Research the popular websites attracting children and teens. Find out what sites are hot and how they work. This isn’t a one-time task. Trendy apps and sites change quickly. Know which places on the web are your child’s favorites.
Have a frank, age-appropriate talk with your children. Let them know human trafficking is a serious threat and doesn’t just happen in big cities. Telling your pre-teen or teen they are a target for sex is nothing a parent wants to do, but it is necessary. This talk is not only for your daughters. Include your sons. They are not immune to the danger, and as good citizens, need to be aware and know the signs.
Be sure to inform your kids traffickers use the Internet to start friendships and gain trust. They will show interest in their target’s day-to-day activities, feelings, and interests. They will shower them with compliments. Soon, they will try to make arrangements to “meet up”. Throughout the grooming period, they will pose as potential or actual boyfriends.
Vulnerable, isolated and insecure children are easy to identify by trolling predators eager to fulfill any emotional needs. Then, they set out to make the kids dependent on them.
That being said, don’t rest easy just because you feel you children are well-adjusted, confident and too savvy to be conned by a predator. Traffickers are master manipulators. Do not underestimate them.
If your children are afraid of you, they will not confide in you. That doesn’t mean you have to be their best friend. Please don’t. You are their parent.
There is one piece of advice Belles says is the hardest for parents to accept: be in charge of your child’s smartphone. Yes, you are the coolest parent on the planet for buying them one. Prepare to be the most horrible parent on the planet when you insist on knowing passwords and monitoring use by using tracking apps on the Internet. Belles says, “This is the single-most thing you can do to protect your child from predators.”
It seems radical, but worth it, in order to keep your child out of the hands of traffickers. When they are adults, they can have total privacy. Let’s make sure they make it to adulthood safely.
Know their friends
If police knock on your door, they are going to ask, “ Do you know who you child’s friends are?” “What do they look like?” “What are their first and last names?”
Don’t allow your child to visit homes of parents you’ve never talked to or met. Don’t allow your child to go to a sleepover unless you know the parents and are aware of any siblings. If your teen is invited to a party, be sure to call the parents and find out what ground rules will be in place. Will there be adult supervision? Will alcohol/drugs be allowed/overlooked? It’s better to find out beforehand and, if necessary, say no to the party, than find out later things went on that will scar your child forever.
Pay extra-attention if your child switches their circle of friends, especially if they seem completely different from their old friends. Find out why. This is where keeping the lines of communication open is crucial.
Don’t ignore it if your teen comes home with a new cellphone, calling it a “gift” from a friend. This is a giant red flag. Find out where it came from, confiscate the phone and report it to authorities.
If your teen starts wearing expensive clothing, jewelry or is getting manicures you aren’t paying for, don’t wait to find out who is providing these things. Adults don’t give pricy gifts to children behind a parent’s back unless they have nefarious intentions. Don’t turn a blind eye.
Sextortion is when predators entice kids to send explicit pictures from their phone or computer. often pose as 15 or 16-year-old boys. The victim may think it’s harmless fun or tell herself it’s okay as long as she’s still wearing a bra and panties. The predator will encourage her to take more risks, telling her everything a young girl wants to hear.
Another method predators use to gather material to use as blackmail is webcam conversations. Often, these communications take a flirtatious tone and a victim may not see the harm in flashing a guy she thinks may be a potential boyfriend or a friendly, faraway crush. Maybe she doesn’t expose herself and instead confides her deepest secrets and sexual fantasies. Unbeknownst to her, he records the video.
Once he gets the content he’s after, he threatens to share her private photos and videos with her parents or her social media friends. He uses blackmail to control her, forcing her into more provocative poses. The victim, deeply ashamed and embarrassed, feels helpless and is desperate not to have the images exposed to the public.
Depending on the location of the predator to the victim, he may insist on meeting in person. I don’t need to spell out what happens next. If he’s in a different country, he may demand money or more explicit videos and photos.
One thing a parent can do during one of their talks with their children is to inform (and continue to remind them) that asking for or being in possession of photos or videos featuring minors in various stages of undress is child pornography and a felony.
If your child is targeted by a sextortionist, stay calm. Call the police and your Internet provider immediately. Take screenshots of all communication between the predator and your child. Cut off all further communication between them, but don’t delete anything. Don’t take matters into your own hands. Don’t be tempted to give him a piece of your mind. Above all, don’t give him any money.
Being vigilant and aware doesn’t mean you have to lose sleep at night and become a nervous wreck. Utilize Nita Belles’ common-sense advice and establish an open line of communication with your kids.
Remember, you are the parent, and that means your child doesn’t always have to like you. It’s your job to protect and educate them. Staying on top of what is going on in their lives may someday save their lives.
Tracy was a panelist at the 2017 International Human Trafficking conference. She did extensive outreach for street-level prostitutes in Toledo, Ohio. Many were victims of human trafficking.