Child Victims of Human Trafficking
By Dianne Anderson
All around, the panoramic impact of the pandemic stretches into every area of life, with higher unemployment hitting poor communities of color hardest, increasing the worst kinds of desperation and profiteering.
While the actual numbers are hard to nail down, the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline reports that it handled situations involving 22,326 individual survivors, nearly 4,384 traffickers, and 1,912 suspicious businesses at last count in 2019. The top five risk factors are substance use, runaway homeless youth, recent migration, unstable housing and mental health concerns.
Norma Biegel, with Operation SafeHouse, said their organization has seen an uptick in emails, texts and referrals over the past year.
Before the pandemic, some of the ways her organization provided resources and awareness was reaching out to schools through a social media app that all students could download.
Their widely available texting app allows students to anonymously and confidential chat for help from 7:00 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Although students have been out of school, she said any girl attending Riverside countywide schools before the pandemic were able to download access.
“It was different during covid, we did reach out and were in constant contact with the school counselors, but during the regular school year, we are in the schools constantly. We’re telling them about all of our programs, and actually had them install the text app while we’re there,” she said.
Judging by emails and texts, she said some girls experiencing tensions in the house could also be driving them to the streets.
Operation SafeHouse is an emergency shelter for at-risk youth serving ages 11-17, and it’s not exclusively related to human trafficking. Every child that comes in is assessed and receives case management services.
But some of their calls for help also come from parents, who say the kids are sneaking out, usually to meet someone they’ve met online through social media, a chatroom, or through games. They could be coerced into meetings with dangerous strangers in real-time.
To help communities reach the area’s most vulnerable kids, Operation SafeHouse holds monthly meetings, training providers on how to spot some of the identifying markers of victims of human sex trafficking. At their shelter, kids coming may or may not have experienced sex trafficking, but they are given information on what to do if confronted or how to help others in that situation.
“For the majority of kids, at least if they were in school last year, they were probably taught at some point about this app,” she said. “It’s out there. We promote with all of our programs throughout Riverside County.”
Human sex trafficking was the topic for several expert speakers over the weekend at an online “Daughters Lives Matter” workshop covering the many facets including domestic violence and sexual exploitation.
“There are those that are perpetrators, coercionists, where that comes from – the foundation of abuse, and neglect – and how they need something to empower them. Their trauma gets transferred to another kind of disturbing trauma,” said Terry Boykins, a child trauma advocate with the nonprofit Project Fighting Chance.
From a mental health perspective, Boykins said that help for sexual abuse victims or those that have grown up in the sex worker profession is very limited. Mostly, mental health resources are generic, not specifically targeting sex trafficking perpetrators or their victims.
Experts say increasing child trafficking is a matter of supply and demand. Traffickers are commercial exploitation businesses or individuals. They are emotionally removed, and mostly it’s all about money.
“The pimp’s job is to broker a deal,” he said. “It’s supply and demand. There’s a population out here comprised of runaways and broken homes, but there’s a demand from men who have whatever is going on in their lives and they need a fix.”
And there is a also disturbing and unusual bond that happens between the pimp and the victim, he said.
According to a 2020 human trafficking report by the U.S. Department of State, “Advocates reported a growing recognition of trauma bonding in human trafficking cases, which occurs when a trafficker uses rewards and punishments in cycles of abuse to foster a powerful emotional connection with the victim.”
The report highlights the most vulnerable children of human trafficking in America include kids in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, foster care, runaways and homeless youth.
Through his outreach, Boykins said he specifically targets resources at men who were once sex addicts or into prostitution, but are now fathers.
One way to arrest the cycle of abuse is to appeal to dads as protectors, he said. Working toward prevention with early intervention, he tries to create more awareness around how they can become actively involved in looking out for their daughters, and begin to change the trajectory.
He calls it pimp-proofing.
“I started thinking back of some of the guys I had dealt with, or just dealing with fatherhood or mentoring. They came up through the life hustling the game on the street, the drugs, but they began to understand when they had daughters,” he said.
For more information, see http://www.streetpositive.com/
For information on how to help, see https://operationsafehouse.org/
If you, or someone you know is at risk of being sexually abused or trafficked, call or contact:
– What’s Up Safehouse App (or text 844-204-0880) to speak with a trained counselor.
– To make a referral to Operation Safehouse (minor victims) email- firstname.lastname@example.org
or call Riverside location: 951-351-4418 /Thousand Palms: 760-343-3211
– National Human Trafficking Hotline 1(888)-373-7888 or text 233733
– For resources in their area, call 211
– Rebirth Homes (adult victims)- 951-394-8142
– Riverside County Anti-Human Trafficking Taskforce 855-758-3733