The FBI estimates that 100,000 children are sold right here in the United States for sex each year, including in child sex trafficking, child sex tourism, and child pornography. There is not a single state in the US that has not been touched by this human tragedy, yet in many states the challenge remains that the problem of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) hasn’t yet risen to the level of those who can launch systemic change.
The Orange County California Board of Supervisors issued a resolution on September 1, 2015, that I would like to see every state adopt. They resolved to affirm their commitment to preventing the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) and to work collaboratively with all county partners to identify, protect, and to serve these vulnerable children and youth. In that same resolution, which has been distributed in the areas of education, child welfare, mental health, medical, and to law enforcement and justice, the board of supervisors declared that CSEC has become an epidemic in the state of California.
Prevention is key
The Human Rights Project for Girls estimates that somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 American kids are currently at risk for becoming victims of CSEC and trafficking. The FBI has documented that 60% of the children rescued from trafficking in 2013 reported having been involved with foster care, and nearly all report having been abused or neglected as children. In 2012, 88 children were rescued from trafficking in Connecticut. 86 of them had been in foster care. In that same year, Los Angeles County reported that 72 commercially sexually exploited girls were in their Succeed Through Achievement and Resilience Court Program. Of those 72, 56 were child-welfare involved.
Since many of us are involved in foster care, we are on the front lines of prevention. It’s important that we know the factors that make young people, especially girls, easy prey for traffickers. According to the Human Rights Project for Girls, these are the highest risk factors:
- Being female between the ages of 12-14
- A history of sexual and physical abuse
- Foster care involvement
- Being a runaway or homeless youth
- Living in an impoverished community
- Disconnection from education system and off-track for achievement
- Substance dependency
Lessons learned from former CSEC victims
When I listen to rescued trafficking victims, I always try to mine the lessons out of what they share. There are things that I’ve heard shared by various people in different ways that shed some light on some of the themes that seem to be common in these tragedies.
They were coerced into doing something. One former trafficking victim told of being a good student, working hard in school, and being hopeful for her future. Her friend from school invited her to go to the friend’s cousin’s house. At 11 years old, she went along. When the girls arrived, they found the cousin and his friends smoking and drinking beer. The girl immediately felt uncomfortable and wanted to leave, but she was 11,with no way to leave or to call anyone to come get her. Everyone kept encouraging her to drink a beer. She didn’t want it. She didn’t like the cigarette smoke. But after a while she got thirsty and took a drink of beer. The next thing she knew, she woke up tied to a mattress on the floor of the garage of that house. She was raped repeatedly for two days.
Someone “loved” them. Many former victims report the trafficker as their “boyfriend” or “daddy.” Some truly believe, even after being rescued, that the trafficker loved them. Stop and really think about this for a moment…these girls are so starved for love, affection, and encouragement that they are easily deceived into believing thinly veiled lies. Many of these victims were sexually abused as children, so what they experience with traffickers isn’t that out of the ordinary for them. Sadly, they believe that their worth and value is in their looks and how they earn their living.
They were dependent on the substance they use to medicate their pain. Victims of abuse often self-medicate with prescription or illegal drugs or with alcohol. When the prescription is no longer refillable or the money runs out to purchase the medication, they do whatever they have to do to get what they need, which often involves sex for drugs. Many victims don’t even see this as trafficking. The same is true for the young people who trade sex for a place to stay and something to eat. In our culture of “friends with benefits” being an acceptable category of relationships, they look at the “exchange” as one option, rather than as a desperate last resort.
There are many other lessons we can learn from rescued victims, but if we take just these three things, we can extrapolate from them some prevention strategies.
Ideas for preventing CSEC
Coercion: To coerce means to compel by force, intimidation, or authority, especially without regard for individual desire or volition. Persuasion, on the other hand, is a peaceful, non-threatening way to convince another person. Since the purpose of persuasion is to open the heart and mind of another, any changes in the opponent’s attitudes or actions are voluntary.
Teach the young people within your influence what coercion is, and the difference between coercion and persuasion. You can raise their awareness of coercion and the ability to avoid it by giving them examples of what coercion sounds like, and conversely, what persuasion sounds like. For example coercion may sound like, “if you really love me, you’ll do this,” or “if you don’t do this, I’m going to go get your little sister and make her do it.” Persuasion, on the other hand, may sound like, “if you want to be a lawyer someday, you need to buckle down and study now,” or “I would really like you to do this, but I understand if you don’t want to. I will care about you no matter what you decide.”
Once you’ve explained the difference between coercion, which benefits the person doing the coercing, and persuasion, which should always be in the best interest of everyone involved, move on to demonstrating some specific ways to avoid coercion. For example, teach young people to say things like, “No, I don’t want to go with you and your cousin.” Help them understand that they can and should say no if they have the slightest discomfort. Tell them that they are not obligated to give a reason to the person who is trying to coerce them. Let them know that societal politeness and cultural acceptability can be set aside when they feel threatened or afraid. And as Robert Martin, former LAPD Captain and personal protection consultant (www.facebook.com/captbobmartin), says, “learn to confidently and convincingly say NO MEANS NO.” In doing this, you’ll be helping young people protect themselves against all forms of coercion they may face in their lives.
Love: To help kids protect themselves against the lure of a trafficker who tries to make them feel wanted and loved, beat them to the punch! Act like you care about them, act like you want them in your family, and act like you love them. If they are difficult to love, as most wounded people are, ACT like you’re competing for an academy award until you can genuinely love them.
For kids who have felt unloved, generic compliments won’t work. Find something you genuinely like or admire about them and point it out to them. Are they especially courageous, resilient, or determined? Whatever good you can find in them is likely one of the good characteristics they can leverage to create their own successful life. Remember, you won’t always be there to protect them. They will think more highly of themselves, and be less vulnerable to a sweet talking person if they know that you think highly of them.
Substance abuse: Kids who have been hurt are not abusing drugs to have a good time—rather, they abuse drugs to medicate their pain. We can get to the root of this problem by making them feel loved, valued, and wanted. If they’re already medicating their pain, your job may be more difficult, but making them feel valued is the first step to alleviating their pain and giving them the ability to choose to quit self-medicating.
In conclusion, nearly all the rescued trafficking victims who have gone on to create good lives for themselves report that one person saw value or potential in them. Regardless of whether you are a foster parent who sees the child every day or the receptionist in the doctor’s office who sees them once a year, YOU CAN BE THE PERSON WHO SEES VALUE IN THEM. When you see something good, say something good.
Rhonda Sciortino, author of How To Get To Awesome, used the coping skills from an abusive childhood to achieve real success which she measures by good relationships, good health, peace, joy, and financial prosperity. Through her writing, speaking, and media appearances, she shares how others can use the obstacles in their lives as stepping stones to their real success. Rhonda can be reached at [email protected]