In honor of World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, it is important that we each recognize the massive size of the child trafficking industry, its underlying causes, and the ways in which we can help. Child trafficking – the buying and selling of kids under the age of 18 for the purpose of exploitation – is a pandemic plaguing almost every nation in the world. There are an estimated 5.5 million children worldwide being trafficked in some form right now.
A child can fall victim to the trafficking industry for any number of reasons, and in any part of the world. However, there exists a misconception that it does not happen in the United States. In reality, it has been reported in all 50 states and most domestic sex trafficking victims are U.S. citizens. The underlying causes of trafficking often intersect with a child’s lack of access to basic resources, such as water, food, safety, or education. Take, for example, the story of Keisha. Her experience helps demonstrate that trafficking lies at the nexus of other social issues, which, in her case, were poverty and insufficient state investment in foster care.
At age 10, Keisha – a Florida native – was placed in a foster home. While under the care of her foster family she was sexually harassed by a family member, which compelled her to run away. She was 14 years old at the time. After leaving home, Keisha was approached by a 26-year old pimp – homeless and runaway youth are usually approached in just a matter of hours. This pimp, “Mastur D,” promised Keisha that he would take her to see her biological family and cover a portion of the associated costs. However, upon arrival, the pimp insisted that Keisha needed to cover some of the travel expenses by engaging in sex with him and other buyers of his choosing. He told her that this was her only choice if she ever wanted to see her family again.
While being coerced into commercial sexual exploitation to pay back her supposed debt, Keisha was arrested for solicitation and placed in a juvenile detention center. After serving a period of time, she was returned to her foster family, where she was once again sexually harassed and, again, ran away. Keisha felt abandoned. She was caught in a cycle of abuse at home and was at odds with the state, which, by placing her in a detention center, clearly viewed her as a criminal rather than a trafficking survivor in need of support. With nowhere else to turn, she reverted back to the trafficker and continued to be coerced in commercial sexual exploitation.
Keisha’s story is, unfortunately, not a one-off case. Countless stories such as hers exist around the world and in our backyards. After running away, she found herself at 14 years old with nowhere to turn. She had no income and she lacked the familial love and support that so many of us take for granted. Traffickers, such as pimps, are fully aware of this void and they make a point to exploit it, as “Mastur D” did in Keisha’s case.
Poverty and state underinvestment in foster care are two factors that contributed to Keisha’s circumstance. The poverty that her biological family faced prevented them from being able to care for her in the first place, and the persistent abuse she underwent at the hands of her foster family led her to believe that her only option was to run away. It is imperative that we examine the underlying inequalities that make children, like Keisha and others in the foster care system, vulnerable to exploitation. If we do not make a concerted effort to fight poverty and increase resources available for foster children and other vulnerable youth, stories such as Keisha’s will persist.
Thankfully, during her second period of incarceration in juvenile detention, Keisha finally received the support she needed. She joined an outreach program, was put in touch with Polaris, and is now in the process of completing her GED. However, the reality remains that she underwent two iterations of sexual exploitation and two periods of incarceration before receiving the assistance she deserved. Throughout the country, child victims of sexual exploitation are treated by law enforcement as criminals because that is how the issue has been framed in the public eye. This, as is evident in Keisha’s case, leaves trafficking survivors with few options. Today, make it clear to your elected officials that providing survivors with support and resources, rather than criminalizing them, is a priority.
1. Donate to the UNICEF USA End Trafficking Project
3. Learn the signs that someone is being trafficked, which include
a. Little knowledge of whereabouts
b. Working excessively long hours
c. Exhibiting anxious behavior
4. See something? Say something. Save the National Human Trafficking Hotline number in your phone
Together, we can ensure that no child remains invisible or voiceless simply because of circumstance.
Note: This blog post relied on Polaris for some statistics and for Keisha’s story. Please note that the data displayed in this report was generated based on limited criteria from calls received by the National Hotline. This is not a comprehensive report on the scale or scope of human trafficking on a state or national level. These statistics may be subject to change.