Unfortunately, a large number of abducted children get pulled into human trafficking. Human trafficking is defined as the illegal movement of people, typically by force for labor or sexual exploitation. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 100,000 to 300,000 American youth are at risk of becoming trafficking victims every year.
I recently interviewed Jane White, the founder and director of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force, to learn what we can do to help eliminate the risk of child trafficking and create safer communities for children. Here are six easy tips.
Tip 1: Start Communicating with Your Kids Early
Parents should start opening the lines of communication with their children as early as possible. Start discussing the things going on at school and with their friends, and start sharing awareness about their Internet usage.
“The issue is not the need for more computer controls,” said Jane, who created the task force through Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice. “These kids are online chatting with adults that are posing as kids. And many kids believe these are their actual friends even though they don’t understand the dangers of these online interactions.” She suggested talking to teens in particular about online predators who attempt to get close to them and arrange to meet in person.
When children do connect with adults, they often shower them with praise and accolades. “Predators are telling kids, ‘You’re so beautiful’ or ‘You’re so wonderful,’ so they willingly go off with strangers,” said Jane, who spent her entire career in law enforcement and has worked extensively with children who’ve been victimized.
“It’s so important for parents to show their kids love early on and assure them that they are there for them,” she said. “It can be as simple as hugging and holding kids more frequently.”
Tip 2: Encourage Your Local Police to Get Training
It’s important for local law enforcement officers to get proper training on how to identify trafficking cases and be equipped to support victims. Increased training can result in greater understanding of the topic and successful prosecutions.
“Only 75% of Michigan police officers are trained about trafficking,” Jane said reluctantly. “All of us can make phone calls to make sure our police department gets educated. We also need more training among local prosecutors and judges.”
Mandated training through in-service training or basic training in police academies can result in improved handling of interactions with victims, an increased number of prosecutions and stiffer criminal penalties for heinous crimes.
Tip 3: Promote Awareness in the Foster Care Community
Foster children and runaways have been identified as a population at high risk for exploitation by traffickers. It’s important that proper mental health assessment and sex offender screening is taking place with prospective foster parents and their families.
“Some children in foster homes are dealing with extreme trauma. It’s not unusual for these kids to be put in 10, 12 or 14 different homes over the course of their lives,” she explained. “Any population of kids who are considered to be outcasts in some way are likely at risk.”
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, predators target children who have unstable lives and have been abused or neglected. Kids living in group homes are often targeted, as well as kids who often congregate in public places like malls.
Sometimes missing reports aren’t filed for foster children, particularly when they’ve run away from their foster homes. More programs are needed for children in foster care to increase their awareness of risk.
Tip 4: Urge Your Legislators to Support Victims
People can call their state legislators to produce more direct and indirect support for trafficking victims. This includes bills for steeper convictions, more psychological services, shelter facilities and mandated trafficking reporting.
“Somebody needs to step up to the plate to help provide more services for victims,” said Jane, who says there are very few safe havens for victims in Michigan. “But many people take the position ‘It’s not my problem,’ when child trafficking is actually everyone’s problem to some extent.”
After much effort, in October, Michigan legislators successfully passed 21 bills that impact state trafficking laws.
“But unfortunately, no money was attached to any of the bills that passed,” Jane explained. “Where are the bills that create a larger system of support through university research or provide legal services and job preparation for victims?”
Tip 5: Promote Education in Your Social Groups
Everyone is involved in something, whether it’s a church group, sorority, parent organization or school activity. People can take initiative to educate their social circles on preventive measures and statistics about child trafficking.
“It’s time to do something,” said Jane, whose nonprofit relies on donations to continue building awareness and support systems for victims. “Make people aware of what’s going on in their community and challenge them to get involved!”
She believes that we don’t talk enough about the demand side of child trafficking. More people should be asking this question: Who are these people who are trying to connect with these kids?
“We really need to become more of a child-focused society in order to foster more support, awareness and action,” Jane said.
Tip 6: Educate Yourself Now
“There’s a great need for more self-education. We really need more awareness out there about these issues,” she insisted. “People think that exploitation results from kids getting pulled into cars by strangers, but that’s not how it works these days.”
Jane said that labor trafficking is as much a problem as sexual trafficking, so people should learn more about both topics as they relate to children and women.
The book “Walking Prey: How America’s Youth Are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery” by Holly Austin Smith tells her story of victimization and provides helpful tips for parents, teachers and kids. “Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy” by Kevin Bales is another resourceful book that can help shed light on the things that put children at risk for trafficking.
These are just a few ways you can get information and get involved in the fight against child trafficking. To learn more about trafficking, you also can visit HumanTrafficking.msu.edu, or check out the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force on Facebook. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline is (888) 373-7888, and callers can remain anonymous if necessary.
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