If you want to end child sex trafficking in the United States, that means ending homelessness, providing addiction care services, and supporting at-risk kids.

By Libby Ryan
October 23, 2020
Back view of teenage girl walking out the front door of her house
Credit: Getty Images

Throughout the past eight pandemic months and lead-up to election season, viral posts began flying around on social media demanding the world pay attention to a horrifying issue: child trafficking. Between these posts and QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy-inspired movement that believes in a global child sex trafficking ring run by so-called 'elites,' rumors circled about horrifying numbers of children trafficked in the United States.

These numbers were galvanizing and terrifying. But they’re also not true—and not telling worried parents the whole story. And let’s be clear: There are kids out there who are at risk of being exploited or abused, irreparably harmed. Accuracy is crucial and at-risk kids deserve that from well-meaning parents.

What Is Child Sex Trafficking?

What do you picture when you hear the words "child trafficking?" It’s a horrible thing to imagine but take a second and see what comes to mind. Maybe you see a horror movie scene of a child taken by a stranger and transported, perhaps across state or even country lines, against their will, for purposes of child labor or sexual exploitation. But the reality of what is legally defined as child trafficking is much wider.

“Anyone under 18 who has sexual contact in exchange for money, food, or a place to stay, that all falls under the crime of sex trafficking,” says Robert Beiser, strategic initiatives director for sex trafficking at Polaris, the company that runs the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.

How Common Is Child Sex Trafficking?

In recent months, Instagram has been ablaze with numbers, usually shared in meme format without sourcing and where the text is difficult to copy/paste for easy fact-checking. There’s an often-cited statistic from the United Nations stating that there are between 20 million and 40 million people in modern slavery today around the world. But this sometimes goes through a game of internet telephone and is stated to be 20 million kids trafficked in the U.S. alone. However, data from groups tracking human trafficking tells a very different story.

The Polaris Project recorded 8,248 cases of human trafficking in 2019. But this total is a combination of people calling the hotline with suspicions of trafficking, people calling reporting they have been trafficked and need help, and law enforcement informing Polaris of a specific case. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children say they responded to more than 10,700 reports regarding possible child sex trafficking in 2019, however, similar to Polaris’ tracking, these cases are not verified by law enforcement.

But the bottom line is that even one case of human trafficking and abuse is a tragedy—and should be stopped.

Who Is At Risk For Child Sex Trafficking?

QAnon and the supporters of the group support a theory of a global network of child predators, leading to specific, now debunked, conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate. But most cases of child trafficking do not occur in this way.

“A misconception that we often see is that the majority of trafficking comes from people being abducted on the street or a network of organized crime.” says Beiser. “It's much more likely for a child to be trafficked by someone they know (a parent, a relative, someone they're dating) than to be abducted by a stranger.”

Data from the Polaris Project shows that nearly a third of trafficking survivors say they were recruited through an intimate partner or even a marriage proposal. Beiser says often these recruitment tactics offer kids and teens a promise of “a better life.”

Data shows that the children at risk of trafficking are often living in unstable homes. These risks include kids who are in the foster care or juvenile justice systems, have a history of domestic or sexual violence, struggle with substance abuse, are undocumented immigrants, or face poverty. Many of the survivors of the horrific case of the now-deceased billionaire Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking ring also fell into these risk groups.

“We encourage people to see trafficking as a set of systems that are consistently failing a group of people and then those kids end up being exploited in predictable ways, rather than some kind of conspiracy that is targeting kids that would otherwise be safe,” says Beiser.

The reality is, your child is likely not at risk for child sex trafficking—especially if you foster open lines of communication about their mental health, sexual activities, and consent. But there are many kids who are not so lucky. The good news is that there are clear systematic fixes that would help prevent those children and teens from being trafficked.

How to Help Prevent Child Sex Trafficking

Experts have long known clear risk factors for child trafficking. So in order to end trafficking, we have to put an end to those risk factors. Here are four ways parents can help.

1. Ending Homelessness

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, about 171,000 families will experience homelessness each year. But 35,000 young people also face homelessness alone each year. They might have to make a “dire” choice between sleeping on the street or going with a trafficker who offers them a place to stay, according to nonprofit Covenant House.

In fact, a 2016 study by the group and Loyala University New Orlean’s Modern Slavery Research Project found that “68 percent of the youth [surveyed] who had either been trafficked or engaged in survival sex or commercial sex had done so while homeless.”

Ending homelessness requires housing to be affordable for all families but, even before the coronavirus pandemic and public health shutdowns, Americans making average salaries couldn't afford a home in 70 percent of the country. You can contact your local elected officials to ask about current legislation in your area that would help house families who might otherwise be homeless—including supporting low-income housing. In addition, you can always donate to your local homeless shelter.

You can also contact your government representatives to ask whether they support the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act—a bill that ensures survivors are treated as victims and not charged with prostitution.

2. Supporting LGBTQ Youth

Studies show that LGBTQ youth are more likely to be victims of trafficking, especially young LGBTQ people of color (and people of color are disproportionately victimized by trafficking when compared to white people). A 2017 study from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago also showed that LGBTQ youth are 120 percent more likely to experience homelessness than straight youth. Often, this is because they are not safe at home because their family does not accept their identity, the Atlanta Youth Count found last year in a report investigating child sex trafficking.

“The full spectrum of gender identity must be understood and accepted in order to fully serve transgender youth and effectively address the needs of trafficked youth,” the report stated.

There are many nonprofit organizations that provide housing and resources to LGBTQ kids and teens in need, such as Covenant House. You can also contact your government representatives to ask them to support legislation that ensures transgender youth can access homeless shelters that correspond with their gender identity.

3. Increasing Access to Addiction Care Services

According to Polaris data, substance abuse is a major risk factor for sex trafficking—whether someone is already struggling with substance abuse or a trafficker causes their addiction. Right now, teens and young people struggling with addiction often can’t afford substance abuse treatment programs—they are expensive even with good healthcare coverage that at-risk kids rarely have. You can donate to local nonprofits in your area that offer addiction services for free to those in need, and you can also contact your congressperson to ask them to support funding free substance abuse programs and free health care programs.

The Bottom Line

There are many other issues that can create an environment where kids can be taken advantage of and abused. And you can also get involved in interventions to help, including reforming the foster care system, providing support to undocumented immigrants who are minors, and increasing access to mental health treatment. But a word to the wise for concerned parents: Your efforts will likely go furthest donating directly to organizations solving the root causes of child sex trafficking rather than sharing unverified social media awareness campaigns.

If you witness abuse or are worried about an unsupervised child or one that appears unsafe, call 911. If a child has confided in you about abuse or you suspect it's happening, call your local Child Protective Services. Google your nearest office or find it by dialing 800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453).

If you have experienced sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (800-656-4673) for confidential immediate support as well as long-term recovery assistance.


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