January 11 is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Here’s what you should know and how to help victims.
National Human Trafficking Awareness Day is the ideal opportunity to educate ourselves on an issue that receives far too little attention. Globally human trafficking is a $150 billion industry. But what many people don’t know is how widespread it is in America.
In February 2017 the FBI partnered with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Operation Cross Country XI. Eighty-four children were rescued in cities including Denver, Detroit and Tulsa. The youngest victim was just three months old.
I spoke to three experts in the field: Dr. John DeGarmo, leading foster care expert and director of The Foster Care Institute; Melissa Breger, professor at Albany Law School; and Matt Pinsker, lawyer and adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
DeGarmo, Breger and Pinsker addressed the most common (and harmful) misconceptions about human trafficking and explained what every single American can do to help victims.
1. The Most Common Misconception: It Doesn’t Happen in America
“I think the biggest misconception is that it’s not happening here in America and that it’s not so widespread,” DeGarmo said. “There are reports that 300,000 children each year in America are victims of child sex trafficking.”
Pinsker and Breger echoed this.
“People view human trafficking as something they see on TV or in the movies, as something exotic. They don’t realize how common it is and that it’s happening in our backyards,” Pinsker said.
“It’s just that it is hidden from public view,” Breger noted, “but if you start looking, you’ll see it.”
2. A Major Way to Help: Learn to Spot Victims
DeGarmo emphasized that when we see a potential victim, it’s up to us to say something. “If people have any suspicions, they need to report it,” he said. “If that person doesn’t report it, then who will? If that person won’t fight for the child, then who will?”
Both DeGarmo and Breger noted that victims are commonly spotted in places like airports, bus stations, hotels, truck stops and massage parlors. Red flags include their appearance and demeanor — victims of sex trafficking frequently avoid eye contact, appear anxious or scared and may have cuts, bruises or other signs of physical abuse.
DeGarmo emphasized that law enforcement officials across the country take human trafficking incredibly seriously, so we should immediately contact them if we see something suspicious.
This strategy is effective. Last year an Uber driver contacted authorities after he became suspicious that a 16-year-old passenger was a victim of sex trafficking. Police responded immediately and arrested her two companions on charges related to pandering.
3. Abused Children and Runaways Are at Greatest Risk
The vast majority of trafficked children have already endured trauma. DeGarmo told me the most “at-risk” children come from broken homes. “[Trafficking victims] are generally children who have been abused physically or sexually in some way, often by parents or family members,” he said.
Breger said that children and teens who run away from abusive homes are immediately at grave risk. “These traffickers are extremely sophisticated and know exactly where to look — which train stations, which bus stops,” she told me.
Breger also provided a chilling observation that illustrates just how sophisticated traffickers are: “Typically we find that within 24 hours of a girl escaping her home, she’s picked up and trafficked.”
4. Another Misconception: It’s a Lifestyle Choice
The average age a child is sex-trafficked in America is between 12 and 14 years old. Breger explained that, in addition to the fact they’re not capable of consent, the victims often form a bond of sorts with their traffickers that she likens to Stockholm syndrome.
“You do find resistance to help in many — not all, but many — cases and there are a lot of reasons for that. One can be that they’re just deathly afraid. They’ve tried to run away in the past and their traffickers have made sure that doesn’t happen again. There’s also trauma-coerced bonding,” she said. “For children who escaped an abusive or neglectful home, they may be getting something from the trafficker that they didn’t get at home, like a sense of stability or a feeling of love. It becomes kind of their new normal. They don’t always see it as being trafficked; they see it as ‘My boyfriend who loves me very much is very demanding.’”
Pinsker, too, noted that not all victims are receptive to help because they don’t necessarily see themselves as victims. Furthermore, he said that as much as they would like another life, many victims don’t think it’s possible because they haven’t had the opportunity to attend school and they don’t see a tangible way to make a living. “A lot of these women say they can’t leave because they feel they have no skills and don’t see a way to make money,” Pinsker explained.
5. Here’s How We Can Help
Beyond knowing how to spot victims and contacting law enforcement when we do, we can raise awareness simply by talking about human trafficking and its prevalence in America. DeGarmo also suggested writing letters to our local politicians, legislators and newspapers. “Talk to law enforcement about how you can help in your area,” he added. “Talk to school administrators about how to help and bring awareness.”
If you’re interested in donating, volunteering or both, here are some organizations doing incredible work to help victims and survivors of human trafficking:
Most importantly, use your knowledge to be on the lookout for victims and start conversations with your social circles. Raising awareness is the first step to engaging more people in the fight against this horrific crime.