Approximately 2,200 children are reported missing every day in the United States. For those not recovered in the first 48 hours, more than 75% will be propositioned for sex acts in exchange for money, food, or lodging. In fact, according to the 2010 US Department of State “Trafficking in Persons Report,” more than 244,000 American children are at risk for commercial sexual exploitation, and according to a study by the University of Pennsylvania, the average age of first involvement in prostitution for an American girl is between 12 and 14.
These children are the victims of human trafficking, a more formal term for a crime that amounts to modern-day slavery. Psychologically manipulated by their captors or “pimps,” these girls will often be incapable of self-identifying as victims, though their living hell of abuse and rape repeats every night. In the United States, it all begins with a missing or runaway child.
Pimps will often transport their girls to areas where there is an influx of men with discretionary cash, sometimes moving them several times in a week. This often translates to major events, such as Sturgis Bike Rally, Mardi Gras, or the Super Bowl.
From February 1 – 5, 2012, I had the opportunity to work as part of a coalition of anti-trafficking non-government organizations, search and rescue teams, and local law enforcement to locate and rescue missing children and victims of human trafficking. Our mission was to identify missing children and potential victims of human trafficking, and relay information to law enforcement. We received strong support from the state Attorney General’s office and great cooperation with local authorities, resulting in one of the most successful outreaches to date.
The outreach consisted of three initiatives: training for local citizens, monitoring of internet advertisements and message boards, and direct street outreach and observation. The training was performed prior to my arrival by f.r.e.e. international, Traffick Free, and the 2012 Super Bowl Commission. Super Bowl volunteers were instructed how to be alert for exploited minors, and taxi drivers received training in recognition of characteristics of missing children or trafficked minors. Hotel staffs were trained to recognize and report these characteristics as well. Additionally, these hotels were given free cases of hygiene soap for distribution in their rooms. On each bar of soap was a label with identifiers of trafficking as well as the national trafficking victims hotline. Our first leads on two missing Midwestern girls were obtained by following up with hotels and showing them pictures of missing children. Both girls were recovered the following day by local authorities.
As observed in previous years, advertisements for adult services increased nearly 300% during the days preceding the Super Bowl, often referring directly to being in town for the big game. While these services are controversial, they are not what we were seeking to prevent. By monitoring these websites, we were able to watch for key words, photographs, and phone numbers that would suggest a minor was being sold. Further research online often led to more information regarding the identity of the pimp, and the origin of the girl. More than 14 actionable tips were recorded and submitted to local authorities, primarily from internet monitoring.
Finally, during the late evenings and into the early mornings, our coalition would disperse in groups of 3-4 to observe areas of interest identified during previously performed research. Other teams would walk through Super Bowl Village or observe the local Greyhound Bus station, watching for unaccompanied adolescents or other suspicious behavior.
By the end of the outreach, more than 600 booklets of missing children had been distributed, 38 hotel staffs had been trained, 14 tips were submitted, and five girls had been rescued from the area by the combined efforts of the coalition.
Getting involved in the fight against human trafficking can be as involved as a person wants it to be. Simply being educated about the issue and having good awareness of one’s surroundings is a great start. Nearly 1/3 of all rescues are the result of a good citizen observing something out of the ordinary and then reporting it to authorities. For example, a consistent stream of visitors throughout the day and night to a suburban residence would be an indication of a brothel.
Individuals who are being trafficked often will show signs physical and mental abuse, as well as having intense fear or depression. They will have bruises and cuts, and will tend to avoid making eye contact. Sometimes they will be tattooed or branded in inconspicuous locations (inside of the upper arm, behind the ear, etc.) constituting a sign of ownership by their captor. One middle-aged man controlling multiple younger women is often a sign of sex trafficking or prostitution.
For those trafficked internationally, they will often speak English poorly and be unfamiliar with the culture. Generally they have a distrust of outsiders, especially law enforcement, and will be lacking identification or legal documents. They will almost certainly be misinformed of their legal rights, and may express fear for the safety of their families.
Should the opportunity present itself, good questions to ask would be, “How did you get here?” “Where do you live, eat, or sleep?” “Is someone keeping your legal / travel documents?” “Were you threatened if you tried to leave?” “Has your family been threatened?” “Have you been physically abused?” and “Is there someone specific that you are afraid of?”
For parents and concerned family members, the best preventative measure is to be actively engaged in your child’s life. Relatively few trafficking cases in the US are due to overt kidnapping, as the majority of victims are actively targeted and recruited due to vulnerabilities. Spending time with your children, asking questions about their day, and being approachable with questions and concerns are important to protecting your child. Perhaps most importantly, the child needs to know from experience and be explicitly told that they are loved and cared for, as this is the most common vulnerability to be exploited. Put simply, best prevention comes from being a good parent, caring for one’s child, and being actively involved in their life.
For those desiring in becoming more involved, there are many non-government organizations who would love volunteers. Inquiring at one’s local house of worship is a good first step, as many are religiously affiliated. From there, one can inquire as to the emphasis of the organization, (in general: raising awareness, performing street outreach, or rehabilitation of the victims) and choose to volunteer according to one’s interests. Be cautious and research the group’s activities thoroughly (especially if all they want you to do is send money), as there are some which do virtually nothing but build webpages and steal credit from other organizations.
In cases where there is the threat of harm or violence, it is always best to contact 911. If you have a lead or information that appears to be trafficking, the Trafficking Victims Hotline is the best place to call. They can be contacted at: 1-888-3737-888
Additional information on trafficking, statistics, identification of victims, and how you can make a difference is readily available online.
1 National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. www.missingkids.com Accessed February 23, 2012.
2 Hammer, Finkelhor, & Sedlak. (2002) Runaway/Throwaway Children: National Estimates and Characteristics. National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
3 2010 U.S. Department of the State Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2010/ Accessed February 23, 2012.
4 Estes & Weiner. (2001) The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work.
5 Bales & Soodalter. (2009) The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.