End Trafficking: Q & A with FBI Special Agent Greg Bristol

January 11, 2014

UNICEF USA's End Trafficking team spoke with retired FBI agent Greg Bristol about what makes children in the U.S. vulnerable to trafficking.

Greg Bristol joined the FBI in 1987 and focused on Washington D.C. area trafficking cases as a member of the FBI's Civil Rights Squad. Bristol also served as a member of the D.C. Human Trafficking Task Force and the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Working Group. 

Learning the signs of trafficking — why is it so important?

Greg Bristol: I constantly hear police say, we never get calls about human trafficking —but I tell them it's all around them. It’s a hidden crime and it takes a lot of work to find it, but the signs are there, the red flags are there. When people learn what the signs of trafficking are, the calls are going to start coming in.

“I constantly hear police say, we never get calls about human trafficking — but I tell them it's all around them.”

What are some of the signs?

Bristol:  Let's take a hospital. If someone comes into an emergency room and shows signs of trauma, or somebody controlling them, or they’re nervous, if their answers and stories seem scripted, you have to step back and say: why is this person acting this way.

If a man comes back in with more women weeks later, ask yourself: why is this man bringing all these different women into the emergency room or the doctor's office.

In about a third of trafficking cases, the victim has met a health care professional during captivity but we’ve never rescued one of these women from these situations.

Out on the road, I often talk to people who say I went to the rest area or truck stop and saw girls getting into trucks. I ask them, did you ever call the police? They say no. 

If people see signs of trafficking, what should they do?

Bristol: Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline — they can call from anywhere in the U.S. and report everything.

dark hotline

Who are the trafficking victims?

Bristol: Anybody in our community. It could be a young person, a middle-aged person, Somebody being forced to do some work for someone. We often think it’s just sex trafficking victims, but there are domestic servants or people forced to work in restaurants or farms. Their whole life is controlled, and at the end of the day or the end of the week, they have very little money to show for their work.

What makes children susceptible to trafficking?

Bristol: Vulnerabilities, having a family problem at home, maybe they’re angry at adult authorities — these are the girls that the traffickers are looking for, girls who can be manipulated or who need a little attention. They’ll praise these girls and they’ll flirt with the girls and they’ll give them gifts, but they’re getting them ready for the sex trafficking network. Children in the foster care system are very susceptible. Traffickers know that these children are going through a disruptive period in their lives.

“When people learn what the signs of trafficking are, the calls are going to start coming in.”

Where do they find them?

Bristol: In certain parts of the country, the number one place to get a sex trafficking victim is the bus stop. And if traffickers know where the kids are at the bus stops, so should law enforcement.

And once they're trafficked?

Bristol: The girls can’t leave. Sometimes there are guards posted at the door or there are threats against their lives. Many times the traffickers know about a girl’s history, where the parents live, where the brothers and sisters live, and they will threaten their family members. Victims don't want their family to know what they’re doing. They're embarrassed. They think in a few days this is all going to be over. Weeks turn into months, and months turn into years.

How can they free themselves?

Bristol: Usually they’re in the company of their traffickers, but every now and then, they get an opportunity to do something and if they knew what to do, to call a number, to talk to a friend, or to approach a police officer — we can rescue some of these kids.

“They need to track down the men controlling these girls, and they need to arrest the men not the girls.”

What role can law enforcement play?

Bristol: Police departments have to recognize that children in prostitution aren’t doing it willingly. They’re victims of trafficking. Every prostitution arrest of a child should be looked at as a human trafficking case. They need to track down the men controlling these girls, and they need to arrest the men not the girls.

What can we do to help end trafficking?

Bristol: Learn what the red flags are and when you do see something — a child who’s in fear or in danger — report it. Contact the police or the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Be part of a community group. Show a documentary on human trafficking to your church. Contact your legislature and encourage them to change the laws against trafficking.

And reach out to kids. There are long lists of children who are especially vulnerable to traffickers, kids with problems, runaway kids, children who have had trouble with the law, kids in homeless shelters, reach out to all those vulnerable children.

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