“This is my story of a girl from the suburbs who was manipulated, coerced, and threatened into terrible things against her will, while others profited,” Theresa L. Flores wrote in her book, “The Slave Across the Street.”
As a 15-year-old Catholic track star, Flores was forced into human trafficking for two years during high school in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan.
She developed a crush on a boy, who offered to drive her home from school one day. He invited her into his house — then drugged her, raped her, and took pictures. Then he forced her into sexual servitude for two years in order to earn the pictures back. Groups of men gang-raped her and beat her; it took her more than 20 years to recover from the trauma.
“Being a teenager in 2016 is nothing like it was even 10 years ago. We didn’t have this level of threat,” said one victims advocate.
“Most people think [trafficking] is only in those areas where children and families are disadvantaged,” said Jan Edwards, CEO of Paving the Way, an organization in Orlando, Florida, that spreads awareness about trafficking. “Trafficking knows no socioeconomic boundaries. It knows no geographic boundaries. It knows no psychographic boundaries. There are children, women [and] young men from every walk of life who are lured into this lifestyle.”
Edwards educates parents, teachers, and community leaders about the signs of trafficking. One of the biggest factors in trafficking now is kid-to-kid recruitment, she said. Sure, trafficking in which women and children are kidnapped and stolen from their families does still happen, as was the case with Elizabeth Smart. But more often, these children are forced into giving sexual favors because of blackmail, threats, bullying — all while living at home and continuing their regular activities.
[lz_bulleted_list title=”Sex Trafficking in U.S.” source=”http://www.fbi.gov”]An estimated 293,000 American youths are at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation.|The majority are runaway youths who live on the streets or who come from homes where they have been abused or abandoned.|Other young people are recruited into prostitution through forced abduction, pressure from parents, or through deceptive agreements between parents and traffickers.|The average age at which girls first become victims is 12 to 14.[/lz_bulleted_list]
“It’s not necessarily ‘stranger danger.’ The majority of times, children are actually trafficked by a family member or family friend,” Edwards told LifeZette.
“The biggest thing I can share with parents: Spend time with your kids,” she added.
When parents know their children’s friends and attend activities with them, they are in a better position to recognize a worrisome shift. Behavior shifts are the first clue children may be in a compromising situation. Are they more secretive than before? Have their grades plummeted? Are they refusing to participate in activities that had interested them previously?
Inappropriate clothing is another clue. Flores said she often wore long-sleeved turtleneck shirts and long pants to hide rope burns, cuts, and bruises.
Edwards also warns parents to watch for the places their children turn for comfort when upset. If they turn to online forums, they could be vulnerable to predators. Complaining online is exactly what pedophiles look for — and Edwards said they work to build a rapport with children based on what upset them. They sympathize, they validate, they manipulate. “These are expert manipulators,” Edwards said.
Fifty-four percent of teens are sexting before age 18. Some are beginning to sext as young as 13.
Parents should be having a basic conversation about the realities of trafficking with kids when they are in first grade, she said — the average age of victims is 12 years old. Average. That means some kids are trafficked as young as six or seven. But straightforward conversations with kids from an early age will create a safe space for children to come to talk to parents if they are victimized.
“Being a teenager in 2016 is nothing like it was even 10 years ago,” Edwards said. “We didn’t have this level of threat. The internet is not like it is now. All these kids have access to online pornography; all these kids are starting to sext.” Sexting can be especially dangerous because people can use those images as leverage against the child. But researchers at Drexel University in Philadelphia found that as many as 54 percent of teens are sexting before age 18.
One recent instance in Louisa County, Virginia, demonstrated the harm that can come when someone collects teenage sexts. In this case, an anonymous user posted more than 100 pictures of young women naked, posing, or masturbating on an Instagram account. In that context, it’s hard to differentiate sexting from child pornography, and teenagers who participate can face severe consequences.
Educators and school counselors need to watch for trafficking signs as well. Children who suddenly shift groups of friends or perform poorly in sports or classes (when they usually excelled) could be struggling and need attention and intervention.
Every parent and educator should know the national human trafficking hotline number — 888-373-7888. Trafficking is a growing crisis internationally. More than 1.2 million children are forced into sexual slavery of some kind, according to UNICEF. But Edwards remains optimistic.
Parents, she said, can do a lot to fight back by having open conversations with their kids and by spending more time with them. This “old” formula is more formidable than ever.