With the internet and social media making it so easy for human traffickers to contact potential victims, parents should be highly vigilant of the dangers facing their children. Parents cannot leave it to teachers, school administrators or their children’s judgment to protect children from harm.
Unfortunately, danger lurks on both the internet and in communities throughout the United States. Around 460,000 children go missing in the U.S. each year, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The vast majority of these missing children are runaways and return home safely.
However, children can suffer serious harm such as sexual exploitation or organ harvesting once they are ensnared by human traffickers. These human traffickers commonly lure children and convert them into victims through a process known as “grooming.”
What Is Grooming?
Grooming begins with a human trafficker targeting a potential victim. The initial contact can occur in shopping malls, at schools and on internet sites. Social media platforms are a significant way for human traffickers to target, groom and recruit their victims.
Over time, the human trafficker works to gain the child’s trust by filling a void in the child’s life. For example, children might complain that their parents do not understand or care for them on social media sites. A human trafficker then uses that information to provide the attention that the child seeks.
Once the trafficker gains the child’s trust during the grooming process, the trafficker makes false promises of caring and love and asks for a solitary meeting in an area away from parental control. Sometimes, the meeting may involve the child running away from home to be with the human trafficker.
As a result, the child is caught by the trafficker, held captive in a stash house and exploited, often through sex trafficking. Traffickers may maintain physical control over their victims and prevent them from leaving a stash house, but that is not always the case.
For example, the trafficker may tell the child that he or she is free to return home. However, there is a condition: the human trafficker threatens violent harm or death to the child or child’s family if the child tells anyone about what is happening.
What to Do If Your Child Is Missing and You Suspect Human Trafficking
If a child goes missing and you believe he or she is a human trafficking victim, it is necessary to act quickly. Time is critical for the child, and immediate action is necessary.
The first step is to always contact law enforcement. Police officers should be provided with every possible detail relating to the case.
Second, parents should also review footage from any home cameras within the community for unusual traffic. Human traffickers may have already cased the child’s home and learned the family’s routine.
It is equally helpful to have a recent photograph of the child. Since everyone’s appearance changes over time, the photograph can be useful for law enforcement.
Kidnappers and Human Traffickers May Be Someone a Child Knows, But Not Always
Whether a child becomes a kidnapping victim or is snared by a human trafficker, the perpetrator is often someone that the victim has met. That person frequently has the child’s background information.
But that is not always the case. On April 8, 2022, a father and his teenage daughter attended a basketball game at the Dallas Mavericks Stadium, according to CBS News. The 15-year-old daughter left her seat during the game, and sex traffickers lured her out of the building under false pretenses.
According to CBS News, one of the attackers said, “Let’s hang out for the rest of the game until it ends, then you can go back up to your dad.” She was later raped in the stadium’s parking garage.
The daughter was then knocked out, transported and trafficked for sex in Oklahoma, according to Fox26 Houston. She was rescued after 11 days.
Additional Steps to Protect Your Children from the Effects of Grooming
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 95% of teenagers between 13 and 17 years old use social media, and over 1 in 3 teenagers reporting that they use social media nearly constantly.
Ideally, parents should teach their children to set all of their profile information to “Private” settings and warn their kids to only accept connection requests from people that they know personally.
Also, parents should warn their children to avoid posting any personally identifiable information such as a home address, school, phone number, place of employment, or any other information that a human trafficker would find useful. Photographs need to be considered as well; a child wearing a school’s shirt in a photo gives away valuable information to a trafficker.
Parents should closely monitor everyone that their child speaks to, whether that’s online or offline. Sometimes, the child’s friends or their friends’ parents may have information if a child goes missing. The victim may have recently met someone and discussed that meeting with a friend, but the victim may not have mentioned the meeting to their own parents.
Professional Investigators Can Prove Useful in Addition to the Police
Parents of missing children also have the option of contacting professionals who specialize in locating missing and endangered children. For example, in the case of the human trafficking victim in Dallas, a private investigator quickly found the victim in sex ads on the internet, which led to her location and eventual rescue.
According to Fox26 Houston, the investigator said that the victim “looked distraught, surprised that somebody was taking her picture and did not look like she was posing intentionally for an ad.”
There are professional organizations that can quickly research common internet sites that are used in sex trafficking and identify any potential matches involving missing or kidnapped children. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) can also be a useful resource.
Talk with Your Children Before Something Happens
Sadly, human traffickers and kidnappers exist in every U.S. state and in many countries around the world. The best way to protect your children from harm is to educate them about both online and offline dangers, including the use of grooming by human traffickers. Parents should teach their children how to react if danger is suspected, as well as help their children develop a better sense of who to trust and who to contact for help if parents are not immediately available.