In this Honest Conversation, President and CEO Katelyn Brewer sat down with three experts in the field of commercial sexual exploitation of children to discuss the truth about child sex trafficking, especially in the digital world.
These experts include Sarah Cooper, Nicole Epps, and Eliza Reock. Cooper is a survivor and advocate for children; after experiencing abuse in the foster system, she was groomed through Facebook as a teenager and ultimately exploited for sex. Nicole Epps is the Executive Director of World Childhood Foundation USA who has spent more than a decade working helping survivors of human trafficking reintegrate into society. Eliza Reock is the Strategic Advisor to National Center for Missing and Exploited Children on child sex trafficking.
NCMEC reports receiving more than 17,0000 reports of possible sex child trafficking in 2020. Reock starts the conversation by explaining the basic information we need to know: what is child sex trafficking and how does it affect us?
“Child sex trafficking is defined as any person under the age of 18 that is exploited, advertised, or solicited through a commercial sex act. This means the exchange of anything of value—not just money, but it could be drugs, or shelter/a place to stay.” She explains that it’s not necessary to prove force, fraud, or coercion as motives because minors cannot consent to any commercial sex act. It’s important to note that trafficking isn’t necessarily a dramatic affair; instead of crossing international borders or children being snatched from beds, in many cases victims are trafficked while still living at home. There are many factors that can build up to a child being trafficked– in fact, 70-90% of sex trafficking victims have previously experienced non-commercial sexual abuse.
In fact, one of the biggest questions Cooper receives from parents and caregivers is, “does this actually happen?” Because trafficking is so dramatically portrayed in popular culture, she suggests that it is hard for the every-day person to take it seriously. “But that’s a huge misconception.”
“We need to think holistically about child sex trafficking victims, not only about how to save or rescue them,” Brewer summed up. “We don’t want to get to that point, we want to prevent it from ever happening.”
Suggestions for Parents
The biggest thing Cooper suggests to parents is having support systems in place, because trafficking can often make victims feel isolated and alone. Make sure children have multiple people in their lives that they feel safe to come to for difficult conversations. “We need to stop saying to children that this can’t happen… we have to be truthful, open, and honest.”
Epps adds: “the reality is that a child is forming a relationship [with their abuser]… so part of the discussion we have to have when we talk about prevention needs to be about healthy relationships.” Epps explains that a big part of the grooming process is gaining the child’s trust; we have to teach kids about healthy boundaries in a relationship, so they know how to spot red flags. “Our education must include language that is not shaming or judgmental, but provides concrete examples of what healthy relationships look like. What healthy conversations look like. That way when [a teenager is] in that conversation—whether online or offline—they will be able to say, ‘Wait a second…’”
Cooper shares that her grooming experience started very innocently – a friend request on Facebook as a young teenager. It was normal to add people she had never met. She had no idea about grooming, or that connecting with strangers put her in a vulnerable position. She thought she was making friends. “It didn’t feel malicious in any way. That’s why predators get away with it, because they have the ability to mask their identity.” She explains elements of the grooming process, and how helpful it might have been if she knew digital safety practices as a kid.
NCMEC reports that the number of online enticement doubled over the course of 2020. This is due to the increase of time vulnerable children must necessarily spend online. But while we know this crime is expanding, we also have more resources to combat trafficking than ever. The panelists share ways adults can empower and protect minors online, such as conversation starters about online dating, helping children think through the implications of exchanging personal information and photos, and teaching kids how safe people behave.
Epps encourages all concerned adults to act as children’s safety nets and react responsibly to disclosures.
“We need to create environments where children feel safe to share when they’ve done something that they’re not proud of. That they feel safe that they will be listened to and not judged. I would argue that it is the fear of judgement, or being shamed, or being in trouble that leads our children further down a rabbit hole… Tell kids, ‘I love you. I will always care for you. It is my job to protect you even when you do something you might not be proud of. But I need you to keep me in the conversation because my job is to keep you safe.’”
Final Perspectives & Resources
Cooper agrees: “The hardest step [for survivors] is telling someone.” Reock suggests that parents frame their questions as “what” not “why,” to encourage children to share and not feel ashamed. She also encourages that if you are exposed to anything that you might think is abuse or exploitation, report it, don’t share it. NCMEC’s job is to determine whether the content is credible and pass it along to authorities. They have found credible content in every state in the US. Report as much as you can; you never know how little information can help lead to a break in a case. “Err on the side of overreporting.”
Cooper explains a little bit about how her trafficking experience ended and the steps she’s taking toward healing. “[The feelings of shame and guilt and fear] was suffocating. I can’t tell you how many times I tried to reach out to people and then deleted every message. But there was one moment. All it took was one moment. And I sent that message, and eight or nine hours later someone drove from Boston to New York City and came and rescued me.”
Everyday survivors wake up as survivors and have to make the choice to pursue healing and help others. “That’s why I speak out. I speak out because my story has power. I took my power back and now I have the ability to help other people and that’s the greatest gift.”
Along those lines, Epps suggests, we should all have these conversations because child sex trafficking thrives in silence. We must open our eyes, talk about it, and then do something about it. We must be armed with education, rather than letting the fear of failure hold us back. And as we ask questions of each other and of children, Reock encourages us to remember, “Just because this happens doesn’t mean there’s not a bright future and a resilient kid that can’t thrive and bounce back.”
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