Sex Trafficking and Runaway Teens
Story by Karla Vanatta
If you have ever been around teenagers, or if you are a teenager, more than likely you have heard of a child or teenager either running away, or saying that they want to runaway. Maybe you have even considered running away yourself as a teen.
There are a lot of reasons why minors feel like they want, or need, to run away from home. Some of them do not get along with their parents or siblings. Some of them are being physically or sexually abused. Some of them are being neglected. Some of these young people have no parental guidance whatsoever so they already feel as if they are living on their own. In a sense, they may be. Some of these kids may have parents that are drug addicts, who have even given their own children drugs. In addition, maybe they are fighting with a friend, boyfriend or girlfriend, someone at school, or just another person in general. They may feel that the best way to avoid fighting every day is to remove themselves from the situation entirely by running away. Sometimes these young people may have gotten themselves into some sort of trouble, either legally, with drugs, or may even have an unwanted pregnancy which they feel like their parents just will not understand. They may feel like if they do not leave and at least try to make life better for themselves, then they are going to end up killing themselves so they leave as a last-ditch effort to save their own lives. In addition, a large number of runaways are from foster care or are in the care of social services. Regardless of the reasons why children and teenagers run away, the fact is that they do run away. According to the National Runaway Safeline, between 1.6 and 2.8 million youth run away in a year.
Do kids have help leaving?
Sometimes they do. Sometimes friends or family help them. Sometimes it is a boyfriend or girlfriend that helps them. Sometimes they get help from someone they met online. Let’s talk a minute about online friends. According to Pursesight:
• Approximately 95 percent of all Americans between 12 and 17 years old are online and three in four teens access the internet on cell phones, tablets, and other mobile devices (as of 2012)[i]
• One in five U.S. teenagers who regularly log on to the Internet says they have received an unwanted sexual solicitation via the Web. Solicitations were defined as requests to engage in sexual activities or sexual talk, or to give out personal sexual information. (only 25% of those told a parent) [ii]
• About 30% of the victims of Internet sexual exploitation are boys.
• Internet sexual predators tend to fall between the ages of 18 and 55, although some are older or younger. Their targets tend to be between the ages of 11 and 15
• In 100% of the cases, teens that are the victims of sexual predators have gone willingly to meet with them[iii].
• There are 799,041 Registered Sex Offenders in the United States (2015)[iv].
• Teens are willing to meet with strangers: 16 percent of teens considered meeting someone they’ve only talked to online and 8 percent have actually met someone they only knew online[v].
• 75% of children are willing to share personal information online about themselves and their family in exchange for goods and services[vi].
• 33% of teens are Facebook friends with other people they have not met in person
Ashely Anderson, who is the development director of Well House, says that traffickers look for kids that are unsupervised both online and in person. They look for kids that are insecure and abused. They will look for kids on social media sites, such as Facebook, by searching zip codes. From there they look for public profiles until they find one that they like. They scroll through their page and read all the details these kids have posted, such as arguments with parents, friends, their school name and also where they like to hang out. Anderson says that these predators then go and hang out where the kids do. They go to football games, the mall, movie theaters and parks. They hang out anywhere they think these kids may go. Then they approach the child, whose interest they already know from viewing their social media, and they strike up conversations.
From there these predators can spend months and even years grooming these kids. They appear empathetic. They say things like, “I can’t believe your parents are so strict. Don’t they understand you are just growing up?” Then they reassure the victim that they are sympathetic to them and they “get it”. They convince these kids that no one can relate with them as much as they can. In addition they learn all the information they can about the kids friends and family. Later I will discuss how these predators use this information against them.
Once these predators become trusted, they can convince these young people that running away and starting a life with them is the only way they will be able to live a happy life where they are understood. The kid runs away with these people believing they are in for a glorious life of independence and love. In return, they are sold for money or drugs. They are forced into sex trafficking. They are beaten and threatened. That is where the information the predators have gained about the victim’s family comes in handy. They threaten to hurt or kill their family members if they go against them and refuse to be used and sold.
According to the (NCMEC) National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 1 in 6 of the 18,500 runaways reported to them in 2016 were likely victims of sex trafficking. Of those that likely fell victim to sex trafficking, and estimated 86% were youth that ran away from foster care or were in the care of social services.
Not all victims meet their abusers online. Some of them meet the abusers once they are on the street. In fact, according to Trent Steele, President and Chairman of Anti-Predator Project, “On average a child will be approached by sex traffickers or solicited for sex within about 72 hours of being on the street.”
Shanna Poteet, founder of Grey Castle Haven, says, “these pimps are trained to spot runaways at train and bus stations. They will say things like, ‘You need to be careful out here by yourself. There are dangerous people out here.”
These pimps and traffickers will pose as caring and concerned people, to get these young people to trust in them and go places with them. Many of these victims gain so must trust in the abusers that they honestly believe they are their boyfriends. The pimps will then tell them to have sex with people for money. They will tell them they have to do it to prove they love them, or to be able to make enough money to get by. They often tell them it will, “just be this once.” It never is. If these girls, and sometimes boys, try to stop or get out of this lifestyle they will be beaten, threatened and sometimes even murdered. In addition to the physical and sexual abuse, they are beat down mentally. They will be called names, made to feel as if they are worthless, are told their families will never forgive them for what they have done. They are also usually given drugs so that they become dependent and have to do the jobs their pimps set up for them. On average victims can be forced to be raped by between 5-30 men a night. They have a certain quota of money they have to make and if they do not make that money they are beaten, raped again, starved and threatened to be sold to a more violent trafficker. Often these girls can be sold to so many traffickers that they can not even remember the names of them all. These pimps on average make anywhere between $500.00- @$2,000.00 per night, per victim. When a victim is sold to a trafficker they can go for as high as $300,000. Young, blonde-haired, blue-eyed American girls go for the most on the dark web, next being 3 and 4-year-old children.
What Can Parents and Caregivers Do?
Ashley Anderson said, “We can talk to teenagers all day, but until parents and caregivers acknowledge that sex trafficking goes on in their community, these kids will be potential victims. This is a life and death situation. Be proactive now before it’s too late. Begin the conversation with your children now about protecting themselves and being aware of their surroundings, both on social media and in person.”
Trent Steele says, “It is important to educate kids on the consequences of their decisions. Law enforcement and other agencies are underfunded and understaffed so often times even if they are reported missing it’s difficult for law enforcement to direct a whole lot of resources toward that runaway case. Kids also need to understand that even if law enforcement is able to divert a significant amount of resources to their case, if they are grabbed by a serial predator and taken out of the area or out of the country, it makes it very difficult for anyone to help them. It’s much easier to try to save these kids with education about how dangerous the streets can be and the realities of life after you have been trafficked than it is after they are already in a bad situation.”
Parents and caregivers can follow this link for NCMEC to gain knowledge on how to best keep their kids from falling victim.
But What If The Child Is Already A Victim?
* Report the child missing to their local police department or call 9-1-1
*Call 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678)
* Runaways can call The National Runaway Safeline at 1-800-RUNAWAY (1-800-786-2929)
* Sex Trafficking Victims can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline 1-888-373-7888
The safest thing for these kids to do is to protect themselves from ever becoming a victim in the first place. On average, only about 1% of sex trafficking victims are ever recovered alive. Once recovered they only have about a 7 year life span expectancy due to malnutrition, deadly diseases and sexually transmitted diseases and suicide. It takes a specifically designed, very extensive therapy program to help these young people have any semblance of what their life was before being trafficked. Most never recover.
Kids these days throw the word pimp around, almost as if it is something funny or cool. They see something they like and they say, “that’s so pimp”. They refer to fixing things up to their standard as “pimping it out”. They refer to each other as “Pimp Daddies.” If they only knew, the reality of pimps is they eventually make their victims call them daddy. They are treated as less than human and are not allowed to call them by their name. A group of victims that a pimp “owns” is referred to as his “stable”. That is how demeaning these abusers are to their victims. They do not treat them as humans, nor do they view them as humans. They view them as a paycheck.
It is estimated that the sex trafficking industry has become more than a $32 billion dollar a year industry. In addition, it is growing every day. Law enforcement is finding it increasingly hard to track down these victims and bring them home due to funding and manpower. They just do not have enough resources to help bring every single victim home. That is why Private Investigators and non-profit organizations that work to combat this horrible epidemic of modern-day slavery are of the utmost importance.
I would like to encourage you to look into organizations that help combat sex trafficking and donate your time and money where applicable. Just do your research and make sure the people you are donating to are legit organizations. The meaning behind this comment will likely come in a follow-up article in the near future.
If there is one thing I hope I have accomplished by writing this article, it is to educate parents and caregivers on the importance of being diligent with knowing what your kids are doing and where they are going, both in person and online. Mainly though, I am hoping that young people see that running away is not the answer, and if you do decide to go this route, know that it is entirely possible you will fall victim to a sex trafficker and likely never make it home again.
If you are living in a neglectful or abusive situation there are a few things you can do:
*Tell a trusted adult, such as a teacher or youth leader
*Call National Sexual Abuse Hotline 1-800-656-4673
*Call Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453)
Whatever you do, I urge you not to turn to a stranger online for help or advice. Do not add people you do not know on social media sites. Do not post pictures of yourself online. I know “everyone is doing it”, but predators can use your photos to help identify you and your surroundings. Predators have also been known to copy victims photos and post them in online groups of other predators, as a shopping list of sorts. It is not worth it, but you are. You are worth it! You are enough! You are important! Please stay safe now so you don’t become a statistic in the future.
You might also like: The Underground World of Sex Traffickers
Story by Karla Vanatta