Children at Dire Risk: Human Trafficking and Our Children’s Safety During COVID

Recent news reports chronicle the heroic efforts of law enforcement breaking trafficking rings and recovering children from their captors. While every child recovered is a blessing and a victory, there are thousands more who are still at risk. Abuse, whether physical, emotional, or sexual, is most prevalent in the home; 94% of childhood abuse happens in the home or by someone closely associated with the child’s home. Children are at increased risk as they are confined at home with their abusers. Current health and travel restrictions, while in place to limit exposure and transfer of the COVID-19 virus, are limiting time at school or in the care of others who could report signs of abuse, endangering our at-risk youth and effectively imprison the children with their worst enemies.

When you hear the term “human trafficking,” what comes to mind? Do you think of child abductions, sweat shops, child soldiers, immigrant and migrant workers, indentured servants, or child sex rings? Human trafficking is a term bandied about on the news, a grim reality for millions of people worldwide. The United States government considers “human trafficking,” “modern slavery,” and “trafficking in persons” to be interchangeable umbrella terms that refer to both labor and sex trafficking. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was enacted twenty years ago by the US Congress, and the Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report is published each year, chronicling the world wide statistics and trends in human trafficking.

A recent case in Ohio detailed the sexual trafficking of children, by their parents/caregivers, who accepted requests for the type of abuse to be inflicted on the children, and then ran a “pay per view” service online. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for child pornography online has increased 5,000 percent. Viewers paid to see these children, aging from infant to teenager, being abused in a variety of ways as requested by the viewers. Sadly, this is not an uncommon practice. Children are being victimized in person, with the images being sold and resold to anyone who will pay to watch online. Victimization online is a growing industry, but abuse happens all around us in our communities.

Trafficking victims are usually teenagers, but in extreme cases can be as young as three years old.  Victims are often coerced into servitude as the result of the grooming process, wherein they are trained to obey, rely on, and protect those controlling them. They are promised wealth, opportunity, and rewards, and eventually either threatened with harm or become so accustomed to the psychological manipulation and pattern of control and abuse that they stay by choice. It is rare that they are kidnap cases; more often, they are runaways or within the foster system and are looking for an escape. “Anything or anywhere is better than where I was” is the common mantra. It is staggering that children would find the antidote to treatment received at home is mistreatment elsewhere.

The ground-breaking study on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), originally conducted by the Kaiser Permanente Foundation, details the relationship between childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. ACEs are defined as potentially traumatic events that occur during childhood (ages 0-17), such as experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect (lack of basic housing, food, or medical care), witnessing violence in the home or community, having a family member attempt or die by suicide, substance misuse, mental health problems, or instability due to parental separation or household members being incarcerated. In short, the higher number of these events experienced during childhood, the higher the likelihood for health problems in adulthood.

Children who experience one adverse childhood experience are likely to experience others. This is known as poly-victimization, and abusers and traffickers use that to their advantage. A child who is already damaged is more likely to submit to more abuse or be easier to manipulate. This cause and effect situation creates a more subservient victim. If the only reality the victim knows or remembers is one of abuse or neglect, that reality becomes “normal” for them.

Conservative estimates, according to The United States Department of State, indicate between 18,000 and 20,000 people are victims of human trafficking within the US each year. An additional 50,000 people are trafficked into the US, most often from the Philippines and Mexico.  Sadly, child sex trafficking is on a meteoric rise. Sexual abuse and exploitation cases, like those of the infants and toddlers being “sold” on porn sites, are increasing exponentially, as indicated by the 5,000% increase in demand.

According to The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), trafficking in the US is most prevalent in Alaska, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, and Vermont but is present in all states. The NCMEC mission is to serve as the nation’s clearinghouse and comprehensive reporting center for all issues related to the prevention of and recovery from child victimization, leading the fight against abduction, abuse, and exploitation – because every child deserves a safe childhood.

By NCMEC definition, “Child sex trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, or advertising of a minor child for the purpose of a commercial sex act, which involves the exchange of anything of value – such as money, drugs or a place to stay – for sexual activity.  While any child can be targeted by a trafficker, research has shown that traffickers often target children with increased vulnerabilities and prey upon a child’s vulnerability and use psychological pressure and intimidation to control, and sexually exploit, the child for financial benefit.  However, the issue of child sex trafficking is complex and not all instances of child sex trafficking involve an identified trafficker.  In such cases, it is the person buying sex from the child who exploits the child’s vulnerabilities. Traffickers and buyers of children for sex encompass all racial, socio-economic and cultural groups. Child sex trafficking has devastating consequences for its minor victims, including long-lasting physical and psychological trauma, disease, and/or even death.”

An estimated 420,000 children are reported missing each year. When a child is reported missing, federal law requires information about that child to be entered into the FBI National Crime Information Center (NCIC). Many children are never reported missing, which hampers the efforts of law enforcement and child protection agencies and leaves the missing children in danger. Where do those children go? It is a tragic reality that those children may never be found. Too often, trafficked youth, when encouraged to go back to their homes, respond that their own families did not bother to report them as missing, and while they know they are being “used” by their traffickers (often referred to as their “Daddy” rather than their pimp), at least someone is keeping track of where they are every day. “Daddy” becomes the central figure in their life; they will do and say anything to protect and obey “Daddy.” They are groomed and manipulated to believe only “Daddy” cares, whether he is overtly abusive or not. In all cases of trafficking, it is by definition, abuse.

Our children are our most precious gift. We must protect them. Training is available through the CDC, NCMEC, Red Cross, Mental Health First Aid USA, Zero Abuse Project, and other agencies in your community.

The Center for Scouting Ministries (GCUMM) focuses on protective measures (actively being involved in a positive growth group, such as Scouts BSA, Girl Scouts of the USA, BBBS, CF) who actively support the safety and well being of children, and have youth protection and growth as part of their core values. Encourages education and connecting with professionals and experts in the field. We encourage, support, and help resource for positive connective groups which can be protective in their nature. Program given with love and care is ministry.

Caroline H. Rudisill

National Youth Protection Advocate, Center for Scouting Ministries

APSAC Member

Texas Annual Conference Scouting Coordinator

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