As nurses at Children’s Mercy, we see children in vulnerable circumstances every day, whether they are facing an illness, an injury or some other personal challenge that is preventing them from being healthy, happy-go-lucky kids. Sometimes, nothing can be done to keep a child from getting sick or hurt. Other times, prevention is possible, and it is the best way to keep kids safe and healthy.
One preventable issue we see too often in our work is child trafficking, the commercial exploitation of children for sex, labor or forced criminality. When we encounter child trafficking victims in the health care setting, we do our best to ensure their safety and get them on a path to healing. However, the journey is long and difficult for trafficking survivors and there are no guarantees. That is why we want to stress with parents and caring adults that preventing kids from being trafficked is so much more effective than dealing with the aftermath.
What is child trafficking?
Child trafficking refers to the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing or soliciting of a minor for the purpose of involuntary labor, commercial sex or forced criminal activity. The most prevalent type of child trafficking in the United States is sex trafficking. If a child discloses exchanging sex acts for basic survival needs, this is also exploitation.
Sex trafficking of children involves the sexual exploitation of minors, including forcing or coercing children to engage in commercial sex acts such as prostitution or the production of pornography. Sex trafficking victims are more likely to enter the health care system than victims of other types of trafficking.
Labor trafficking of youth is using force, fraud or coercion for the purposes of subjecting minors to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery. The most common victims are older children and teens who are being forced to work without pay. Oftentimes, victims are foreign nationals and their parent or guardian may also be a victim of labor trafficking.
Forced criminality of minors occurs when young people are forced to commit crimes such as robbery, panhandling or producing and transporting illicit drugs. Trafficked individuals who are forced to commit crimes are commonly mistaken for criminals—rather than being identified as victims.
Myths about child trafficking:
Myth: Kids are trafficked by being snatched off the street.
Fact: There are almost no cases of trafficking victims identified by Children’s Mercy have been trafficked as a result of being randomly kidnapped by someone they had never met. Victims are often either trafficked by a family member, friend or by someone they met online.
Myth: Kids who get trafficked are bad kids.
Fact: Any child can be trafficked or exploited and no trafficking victim is at fault. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), or things in a child’s life that negatively affects them like witnessing violence, neglect or life disruption, can make some children more susceptible to being victimized, but their susceptibility is not their fault.
Myth: Foreign nationals are the only kids being trafficked.
Fact: The most prevalent human trafficking victims are U.S. citizens under age 18 for sex trafficking.
Myth: Trafficking means smuggling people across borders.
Fact: Many trafficking cases take place within communities and with no movement across borders.
Does it happen in Kansas City?
Yes. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report, human trafficking happens in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Since 2019, at Children’s Mercy alone, we have identified 110 kids from the Kansas City area who are being trafficked or are high risk for being trafficked.
How does trafficking happen?
It starts with grooming. Grooming is befriending and establishing an emotional connection for the purposes of exploiting that connection. Grooming makes a child dependent on their trafficker and makes it possible for a trafficker to manipulate a child or teen into cooperating in their own exploitation. This makes it less likely the victim will leave the trafficker or that they will disclose what is happening.
Trafficking happens quickly. According to the Missouri Highway Patrol, it only takes 8 days from the time a child meets a trafficker online to when they meet in person. The grooming process is incredibly fast.
Traffickers identify victims’ vulnerabilities and needs and respond to those needs with gifts, economic and emotional support or even the promise of love. This is why traffickers can often look like a romantic partner even to friends and family.
Traffickers isolate their victims from friends and family in order to control the situation without interference from concerned people in the child’s life.
Traffickers gain information and materials from victims that can be used to blackmail them, such as illicit photos or immigration status.
Traffickers maintain control through threats, drugs or alcohol, blackmail and demands for sex, labor or forced criminality as payment.
Children and teens can be trafficked online. Tweens and teens are often recruited by traffickers through online dating apps, video games, social media and other online platforms. The child thinks they are entering into a romantic relationship, but they are actually being groomed by a trafficker.
Children and teens can be trafficked by family members. Children being trafficked by a family member are usually trafficked for drug money or in exchange for drugs. Trafficking in this case is part of a cycle of trauma and abuse, the trafficker usually having experienced significant trauma in their own lives.
Who is being trafficked?
Kids of all ages. Any child can be trafficked.
Kids of all genders. The majority of trafficking survivors who report to health care settings are girls. However, boys, gender-nonconforming children and transgender children are also being trafficked and their cases are underreported. We know a high demand exists in the child trafficking market for boys, gender-nonconforming children and transgender children. Yet, in our society, boys, gender-nonconforming kids and transgender kids are much less likely to disclose that they have been victims of trafficking.
Kids who seem typical. Some child trafficking victims live with their parents or guardians, attend school, are appropriately dressed and present as any other child their age. Often, victims cannot be identified by sight.
Kids with ACEs. Children with a history of trauma are more at risk for being victims of trafficking. ACEs include but are not limited to: physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect or maltreatment, witnessing violence, growing up in a family with substance use disorders or inadequately treated mental health issues, poverty, food insecurity, homelessness, personal or familial involvement in the justice system or foster care system and LGBTQ+ identity.
Who is trafficking children?
Most often, traffickers and buyers are middle-aged men of every race, socioeconomic class, profession and walk of life. Traffickers do not look like the creepy, reclusive predators we see in the media. They look like our neighbors, relatives and co-workers.
How can parents keep kids safe from trafficking?
Build and maintain healthy relationships with your children. Spend quality time together and check in often. Many victims of trafficking are vulnerable because they are lonely, depressed and isolated. Healthy parental attachments reduce those vulnerabilities.
Talk to children early and often about healthy relationships and healthy sexual development. Use resources like the Teen Safety Card from Futures Without Violence or the dating violence prevention site com to start the conversation. If you are still not comfortable having these conversations, enlist a trained health care provider, counselor or therapist.
Be vigilant about online safety. Traffickers are on every popular app kids love. Know exactly what your child is doing online and give them guidelines for what types of information are OK and not OK to post, who to chat with (known friends only) and who to block. Make sure you and your children turn off location services when posting on social media. Do not post photos that show what school they go to or what neighborhood you live in. Do not post photos of kids in swimwear, underwear or in the bath. Consider whether to use their name online and make sure social media accounts are private.
Know the signs that trafficking may be occurring.
New onset of anxiety or depression
Sudden change in grades or engagement in school
New friend group or controlling romantic relationship