"Human trafficking is the commoditization of vulnerability."
This quote was shared by Rob Spectre of childsafe.ai, originating from an unnamed prosecutor, and it sums up nearly everything we've learned in five years of fighting child sex trafficking.
It's about the money. Always has been. Vulnerable children are the "easy money" awaiting predators who promise safety, a better life, opportunity, or whatever seemingly solves the distress or pressures they face in their young lives.
One of the greatest defensive tools of traffickers is one they aren’t even wielding themselves. They don’t have to, because we wield it for them.
Few tools protect predators as well as the confusion caused by misinformation.
Misinformation leads the majority of the population, rightfully horrified over what they hear, to become distracted and paralyzed with inaction. We are outraged, and yet few of us ever actually do anything beyond voicing our objections on social media. It’s about as effective as screaming at a hurricane to slow down.
A Vegas magician would call it misdirection. We’re distracted from what’s really happening because our eyes are on something else. What we do see, seems to be true. It feels true. We have no reason to question it.
When it comes to child trafficking, our focus is directed to shocking stories and misapplied statistics that don’t actually represent the bulk of the problem. It’s like standing before a million acres of corn and only seeing the ten-foot strip of tall, brightly-colored sunflowers at the edge.
These stories and statistics present some major barriers to most of us. For example, if the main problem is abductions or foreigners smuggled over the border in crates, how does the average person stop that? Our response may be to put our energy into protecting our own kids from outside dangers that will almost certainly never manifest. And then we do our best to put it out of our minds, knowing we’ve stopped the danger from reaching inside our own home. Or so we think.
Nearly every day, I see social media posts regarding the kidnapping and sale of children in America. Let me be clear: Every single case of abduction and trafficking is a horrifying reality to all involved, and a sobering warning to everyone. It’s the ultimate nightmare for any parent.
However, there are three simple and very important facts we need to understand when it comes to abductions.
First, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, less than 1 percent of all missing child cases in America are "nonfamily abductions". In most cases, missing kids are runaways (ironically, a group that’s often at extreme risk for trafficking) or taken illegally by family, such as a divorced parent. To put it in perspective, your odds of being struck by lightning in your lifetime are 100 times higher than being abducted by a stranger at any point in your life, including as an adult. In fact, your child is almost more likely to face any other nightmare or calamity you’ve heard of before being abducted. And there's a good, logical reason for this. Abductions, in most cases, are simply not good business for the bad guys. But more on that later.
Second, not all "nonfamily abductions" are automatically sex trafficking cases, although it's fair to assume many are. But here’s where statistics can be poorly applied. We may assume that all missing children are trafficking victims, or we assume that all abducted children are trafficking victims. But for example, as I'm sure you've heard, in Mexico abductions are more likely to involve ransom than trafficking. It’s a horrible thing, but it’s a different horrible thing than trafficking.
And third, missing children represent only a fraction of the true victims of sex trafficking in America. That includes runaways as well as abductions. This year alone, more than a dozen trafficked girls we've worked with were all still living in their family home WHILE being sold, either by a family member or by an "older boyfriend".
And here’s where another great misunderstanding rears its head. Trafficking is selling. Smuggling is moving. You can be trafficked for sex without ever leaving your house. You can be smuggled across a border without being trafficked. They are two very different crimes, despite many people believing that trafficking requires movement. It does not, not by any definition of any trafficking law, neither US law nor international law.
Even the best data we have is based on an incredibly limited dataset. The Polaris Project is known to be one of the more reliable sources for human trafficking statistics. A 2018 study of over 23,000 cases gave us better understanding, but nowhere near a complete picture. That study only showed data from calls to the National Trafficking Hotline. Of all the victims of sex trafficking we've met in the USA, not one has ever called that number. Is it possible that we're missing an entire segment of trafficking victims?
So what’s the point? Who cares if the info is a little off? Aren’t we still bringing attention to the problem? Aren’t we still raising awareness? Yes, and also very much no.
As with any battle, you need to understand the true force and power of your enemy in order to defeat them. If we assume that our fight is against kidnappers, and we continue to put our time and mental energy toward that fight, we will be blindsided by the massive reality of trafficking through grooming. And that’s literally what we’re seeing today. A blindness to the real problem, while the news reports and social media posts continue to reference the most uncommon manifestations of the crime.
We crave sensationalism. A kidnapping victim is simply more exciting, more shocking, more sensational than a girl from a poor family falling in with a gang that takes advantage of her. We can relate to the former, but not to the latter. So we ignore one life and are devastated over the other. This is a harsh truth, my friends, but for the sake of countless innocent lives, it's a truth we must face.
Children who are deceived, who are tricked and groomed into what appears to be complicit commercial sex, are no less victims than those who are pulled into a van off the street. They face the same nightmares and are left with the same ashes of their former life.
It’s easier to have compassion when you understand the life some of these kids are faced with. I’ll share just one example, from earlier this year:
A girl of 17 told us she had been involved in prostitution since she was just 14. Her mother, a drug addict, had her when she was only 16. Mom also had a hard life, and had turned to prostitution to earn a living and pay for her drug habit (we don’t know mom’s entire history or what might have led her to that place). Now, in her early 30’s, the men aren’t paying as much as they used to. So she started taking her daughter to work. Problem solved. Now mom sells her daughter every weekend and after school. This girl is smart, driven, and brimming with potential. But even the best and brightest child, faced with that reality, would have little chance to escape without help. Her mother tells her that they’ll starve and be out on the street unless she sleeps with strange men. In her young mind, still maturing and gaining experience, there is little reason to doubt Mom, and even fewer options for fighting her. In fear, she complies. And then her internal self-defense kicks in, and she seems to embrace her duties. It’s the only way she can deal with the severe trauma she faces every day. She rarely sleeps. She acts out aggressively to hide the pain inside. More than once we saw that facade start to falter. It’s her armor. The only way she knows to survive.
When seen from the outside, she’s just another “troubled youth”. A hooligan. A bad kid doing bad things, getting in trouble and headed for a life of crime.
In truth, she is yet another vulnerable child, born into a life she had no choice in and preyed upon by someone who wants to profit from her suffering.
This story repeats over and over again, with slightly varying circumstances. Perhaps stepdad is an abusive drunk, and a new “boyfriend” shows up to save her from him. He's an older boy, usually in his early 20's. He's kind, attractive, and shows her the care and attention she's so desperate for. They leave together, but she has to do her part to help earn a living. Otherwise, they’ll have no money to live, and she’ll go back to stepdad. At the end of the day, if you’re going to be raped anyway, it might as well be on your terms, right? What a terrible choice to put before a confused adolescent!
In certain circumstances, decisions that would seem ridiculous to us actually seem logical. Be hurt at home, by someone who’s supposed to protect me, or be hurt for money, by someone who’s at least honest about his intentions? What might you do in her shoes?
The stories are all different, and yet the same. Maybe she ran away from a bad home situation or foster care, and just as she was about to give up on life altogether, someone offered her a way to keep going. Or maybe it’s your daughter, who thinks her life is hard because she can’t stay out later or has too many restrictions at home. While online someone listens to her, understands her, begins encouraging that bitterness and anger, shares secrets with her that he doesn’t tell anyone else, and eventually, convinces her that she’d be better off on her own. With him. Just think of the freedom we’ll have together...
When you’ve tried and tried and tried, and you still can’t see any better options, sometimes you make the decision you think will hurt the least. Even if it ends up hurting the most.
This is what we need to understand if we want to have any hope of reaching these kids.
This is the supply line for the commercial sex demand in America. Controlling someone through fear and chains is risky, expensive, and time-consuming. Controlling someone through manipulation, to the point they come willingly, is extremely effective and safe. Your victim is immediately compliant, and most customers prefer that. Those customers can justify their actions by believing they are actually helping the girls by giving them an income. That’s harder to sell when the girl is tied to a bed and screaming.
Believe it or not, many buyers are normal, everyday men. They have families, jobs, they go to church, coach Little League...but they have a secret. Men like that need to believe they aren't hurting anyone. They need to believe the lie. Compliant girls help sell the illusion.
And yes, it’s more complicated than that. It might start with a photoshoot or webcam, before more money and risk is introduced. Traffickers may begin with coercion, but they’ll soon add more hooks. They’ll introduce drugs. They’ll involve them in other crimes, later using the threat of that crime to maintain control. They’ll become physically and emotionally abusive. They’ll threaten to hurt friends, family, do terrible things to younger siblings. But it rarely starts out that way.
Never forget, the objective of trafficking is to make money. Lots of money. Easy money. Most traffickers prefer the safe and sure route to earning their fortune. Grooming vulnerable kids is easy, repeatable, and nearly invisible. Older traffickers even employ younger, more attractive men to ensnare young girls. Female traffickers have their own tricks as well. All seemingly innocent. Quiet. Quickly abandoned if their motives are questioned.
Compare that with an abduction, which generally involves furious parents, law enforcement, the media, AMBER Alerts, and constant fear of discovery. Even if you evade all of that, you still have to break the child until they are compliant and stop trying to escape.
Are you getting the picture?
I don’t want us to ignore abducted children. But I do want us to consider giving more attention to the massive, ever-growing reality that the majority of child trafficking victims face. I also want us to be aware, as parents, that the risk of an outsider grooming our kids away from the safety of our homes is far, far greater than the prospect of a windowless van lurking around every corner.
I want our energy and efforts to make a real difference. And to do that, we must know where to focus those efforts. This is why understanding is so critical.
To those loving parents out there with tweens and young teenagers beginning those tough years of transition to adulthood, remember that her struggles are no longer kept within the family. Others will influence her more and more on her way to independence. If you don’t diligently keep the lines of communication open, you may find yourself a minority voice in her life.
If we want to end human trafficking, we must end “...the commoditization of vulnerability.” We must focus on the strength of the enemy, not the fringes.
The question we all share is, “How?” How do we take what we know and turn it into action that matters? How do regular, everyday people with jobs and families and busy lives change the future for a child trapped in sexual exploitation?
There are things you can do. And there are things you can support so that others can act on your behalf. I’ll share a few things that we’re doing through The Phoenix Alliance, and then give you at least one way you can make a tangible difference today, even if you have little time or money to spare.
First, we are reaching some of the most vulnerable kids in our society through the juvenile justice system. Many, if not all of these kids come from difficult, abusive, and/or broken homes. They are often living in poverty, surrounded by drugs and gangs and violence. We are meeting with these kids, hearing their stories, and developing long-term mentor relationships with them. Our hope is that by investing in their future and genuinely caring for them, we can give them the strength and foresight to stand up to the predators they face every day.
Second, we are teaching (once school resumes) a comprehensive trafficking safety curriculum. The program identifies many of the realities discussed above, in an age-appropriate way. This program is new for us, but we fully expect to see children self-identify as victims once they are given a context for the things they have been dealing with. So many are unaware that they have been tricked. They are made to believe that they have chosen their circumstances, and it's not until they see the tricks of traffickers outlined clearly that they realize they've been manipulated.
Third, we are preparing to engage with the foster care system, where vulnerable children often find themselves in more dangerous situations than the ones they were taken from. We want to recruit, train, and support strong families to foster high-risk kids. These families will not only be a positive influence on the child’s future, but will also prevent them from being placed in a potentially dangerous or abusive foster home.
There’s more. Much more that we’d like to do. We want to open shelter homes for survivors. We want to develop a network of counselors and other professionals to help kids walk through recovery. We want a scholarship program to help them reach their career goals on their way to safe, independent living. But we have to start somewhere.
Are you fired up? Ready to stop thinking and start acting?
As promised, here are a few things you can do, starting right now. In general, most people fall into two categories: Those that have spare time and the skills or experience to volunteer directly, and those who lack time and/or experience but can financially support the efforts of others. Many people find themselves between, sometimes having time, other times not. And that’s ok. Everyone can do something.
The bottom line is that The Phoenix Alliance can only move as fast and as far as our resources allow. With your help, we can continue to grow our impact.
1. Hands-down, the easiest effective action step I’ve seen is to create a Facebook fundraiser. This is as easy as a regular Facebook post. Simply select “Support Nonprofit” on a new post. Then just type in the name of the anti-trafficking organization of your choice! Only legitimate nonprofits that have been verified by Facebook through a rigorous application process are on the list. Then, invite your friends to donate. Facebook even covers all the processing fees, and your nonprofit will receive 100% of the donations people give. The Phoenix Alliance is on the list, and we’d be honored by your support. But if not us, find an organization that you feel comfortable supporting and do this for them. You might raise a little, or you might be surprised what your friends can do. But regardless, this is something you can do even if you have no money to give personally.
2. You can volunteer with our organization and others. We are always happy to help you connect with a local organization, even if you’re not close to one of our operations. Each org will have different needs and opportunities. We are currently looking for folks who can be trained to teach our trafficking safety curriculum or to mentor at-risk youth. We also have (or will have, when COVID allows) fundraising events that you can help with, and overseas trips to work with our Thailand home.
3. You can use your voice to inspire others. Everyone has a network. That group of humans that you know and that knows you. Everyone has influence. If you share your heart, your passion for helping children escape this terrible reality, you may find that someone in your network feels the same, and has been looking for a way to connect in the fight.
4. Lastly, and most critically, to my Christian brothers and sisters out there, you can pray over this issue. Pray for the children who are being hurt so terribly even as you read this. Pray for those who have been rescued, that God will restore them, heal them, and use them to reach others. Pray for us, and for all who fight for them, that we would have wisdom and effectiveness in our work. Pray for God’s continued provision for our families and our ministry.
Make a difference one life at a time. Don’t be overwhelmed by the scope of the problem. Don’t be paralyzed. Don't be distracted by things you can't change. Help one, or help us help one. It will matter to them, I promise.
God bless you all.