Child trafficking, particularly for sexual exploitation, has increased dramatically in the United States over the past 15 years, and the numbers of victims continue to rise each year.
“The average age keeps getting younger and younger — for girls, it’s now 12,” says activist and novelist Heather Huffman (www.heatherhuffman.net), whose newest book, Devil in Disguise, aims to raise awareness of the problem. “The rise of the internet is a huge part of the problem, and society has found no effective way to address it.”
In fact, she says, those who profit from the internet seem determined to thwart safeguards. Social media giant Facebook, she notes, is working on technology that would allow it to circumvent federal law by allowing children 13 and younger to become members. And in June, a website that advertises escort services successfully sued to stop Washington state from enforcing its new law requiring publishers to verify the ages of people in sex ads.
“The law was intended to help prevent trafficking children,” Huffman says. “Other states have similar laws either soon to take effect or in the works, and this ruling threatens that potentially effective preventative measure.”
The plaintiff in the Washington suit was Backpage.com, the second-largest online classified ad service in the country. Such websites, including the biggest, Craigslist, regularly post ads for escort services and the like, Huffman notes. They make it easier than ever for traffickers to appeal to a mass audience for paying customers.
They, along with social media sites where children freely chat and post photos of, and information about, themselves, account for much of the growth in domestic child trafficking, she and others say.
“When we place our children’s pictures on sites like Facebook, or allow them to do so, we’re adding them to a human trafficking catalog,” Huffman says.
Whether you’re a parent, an educator, a law enforcement or another adult who deals with children, she offers these suggestions for helping prevent, recognize and stop the trafficking of children.
• Watch for repeated unexplained absences from school. Children being used for prostitution often don’t attend school regularly and seem to have no control over their schedule or personal identification papers. They may talk of frequently traveling to other cities. People working in shelters, courts and law enforcement should strive to identify whether children detained as runaways, truants or for drug-related offenses are actually trafficking victims. They are often too afraid or ashamed to volunteer the information.
• Be alert to physical problems. These children tend to be underfed and inappropriately clothed. They may have bruises and other evidence of trauma. They’re often fearful and/or withdrawn, and may show signs of drug addiction.
• Lobby for legislation in your state to make all minors immune to criminal prostitution charges. Some states, including Illinois and Tennessee immunize anyone younger than 18 from prostitution charges. Connecticut immunizes children 15 and younger, and requires a presumption by law enforcement that 16- and 17-year-olds are victims. Huffman and other experts say that charging and jailing trafficking victims compounds their trauma and prevents them from seeking help, since they feel they can’t trust law enforcement. It also unfairly burdens them with an arrest record for being a victim! Find out the status of your state and lobby for change, if necessary.
• See if your city’s mayor has joined an ad boycott of Village Voice Media. In 2011, the mayor of Seattle asked Village Voice to protect the city’s children by ensuring they were not being advertised on its website, www.backpage.com. When the corporation failed to respond, he pulled city advertising from all its publications. Other mayors have since followed suit. At www.sharedhope.org, you’ll find a list of mayors who have yet to take action. If yours is on the list, click to send him or her a letter. Get to the list by clicking the “Get Involved” tab, and then “Join the campaign.”
“Solving this problem is the responsibility of all adults,” Huffman says. “If you don’t believe it can happen in your family, be aware that runaways are now targeted, on average, within 48 hours of leaving home. And even ‘normal’ kids sometimes get mad and run away, if only for a day. It’s horrifying to imagine the disastrous results a momentary pique of childish temper might have.”