Human Trafficking Awareness Month
January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Most folks equate human trafficking (HT) with labor trafficking and sex trafficking that happens elsewhere. People will name other countries or discuss a movie they saw with dramatic kidnappings and a hero that saves the day. These films do little to increase awareness of what happens in our own communities and the dynamics at play. They also limit our problem-solving to micro-level save and rescue efforts. These conversations lack a systems-based understanding of the realities perpetuating the different ways people are trafficked, including commercial sexual exploitation of children and youth (CSEC). This January 11, National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, I would like to highlight CSEC and how it may show up in classrooms.
What is Sex Trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children?
Sex trafficking, which includes CSEC, is a billion-dollar industry driven by consumer demands. The consumers are called " johns." Johns maintain a high demand, and the traffickers, called "pimps," supply them with their product—our children and adolescents. Thinking about this problem through a systems-based understanding expands our consideration of interventions beyond professional development and training, curriculum building, psychotherapy, and life skills programs to include macro-level interventions that disrupt the demand and purchasing power that buy the children of our nation for sex.
As hard as it may be to process, it is important to acknowledge that trafficking is done by people that are close to the child, such as caregivers or romantic partners, and that it takes place in our parks, bus stations, bars, hotels, malls, airports, schools, job interviews, and homes. This is facilitated by the fact that someone is willing to purchase our children for sex. On top of everything else that we must protect our children from, CSEC is a real threat in our own communities.
Which Youth Are at Risk for Trafficking?
Children and adolescents who are trafficked attend elementary, middle, and high schools and sit in your classrooms. The children and youth are of all races and ethnicities, and many are trafficked between the ages of twelve and fourteen- also called the age of entry. Even though they come from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, some are more vulnerable to being approached by a trafficker. For example, several factors increase the likelihood of being trafficked, including houselessness and a history of sexual abuse, recent migration, mental health challenges, running away behaviors, and substance use history. In my experience, some of the most vulnerable were LGBTQIA+ youth and youth in foster care that ran away from their placements.
I experienced profound disillusionment when I worked with child welfare systems and witnessed the racial disparities there. Black and Brown families live under a form of surveillance. They are reported to child protective services at higher rates, are more likely to be investigated, and as a result, experience family separation. We know that poverty is conflated with neglect many times. Still, we also know that even if poverty is not part of the picture, that anti-Black racism continues to be a factor in how parenting is evaluated. This is heartbreaking because Black and Brown children that are removed from their homes and placed in homes where they may not have strong bonds, long-standing community relations, or even folks that share their culture could resort to running away. Youth that run away from home may be approached within forty-eight hours by a trafficker willing to exploit the child's circumstances.
What is Grooming and What is Not Grooming?
Children and adolescents are trafficked through coercion, psychological manipulation, or force. Even though kidnapping does happen, it is usually someone the child knows, and they will use psychological tactics such as grooming to recruit the child. The concept of grooming is complex, and it is accomplished in stages. Traffickers target vulnerable children and create connections with them by establishing a relationship based on trust and by meeting the youths' economic and psychological needs. If a youth feels unloved and rejected, the trafficker will exploit this and use it to build a relationship with the child. They could also isolate the child from other loved ones and even use intimidation and coercion to finally control them and to get the youth to engage in their own exploitation.
It is important to differentiate this process from the way that it is being used today in anti-LGBTQIA+ rhetoric. Grooming is part of CSEC, which is sexual abuse, a type of child abuse. It is also important to note that psychoeducation on sexual health for children and families is a powerful tool for the prevention and intervention of sexual abuse. Many of the youth I interacted with held misconceptions and believed that the abuse they endured was part of a normal loving relationship.
Flippantly throwing the word grooming around as it has been done in my home state of Florida during political battles might desensitize us to the severity of what goes on during CSEC. CSEC happens anywhere and everywhere, and it may happen right before you, although we struggle to accept this reality. I would have frequent conversations with educators and school staff that went as follows: "Domestic CSEC is real, and there is no such thing as consent for our youths. It is always a human trafficking crime because your student is a minor and they are not choosing to be sexually exploited. They are being trafficked and sold commercially for profit and to meet the demand of johns."How Educators Can Fight Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Our Communities Click To Tweet
How to Look Out for Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children
CSEC can take many forms, such as stripping in night clubs, pornography—think all social media platforms—chat applications on smartphones, and of course, sexual activity. We must also note that because of this, the student will experience physiological, psychological, spiritual, and social consequences.
Educators and other school staff could benefit from understanding this from a trauma-informed perspective. This includes understanding how trauma impacts the body, with an emphasis on the neurological effects. For example, a teacher may expect this student to demonstrate difficulties regulating their emotions, retaining new information, paying attention, and speaking in class. The student may experience somatic complaints and need an advocate or an ally to accompany them through this traumatic experience. The youth might commonly demonstrate trauma reactions and even use substances as a form of coping. After all, they are experiencing psychological and spiritual pain and probably do not feel safe in most spaces because CSEC is not commonly understood. Frequently, the youth are blamed for what has been done to them. Their behaviors tend to be punished with detentions, suspensions, and expulsions.
A great place to start is for schools to provide trauma-informed CSEC education to students, teachers, and staff. It is important to support teachers and staff by providing appropriate training and resources- including mental health days! Being a witness to the pain and suffering of children and families can have its own consequences like fatigue, vicarious trauma, and more.
Here are some signs for teachers and staff to look out for:
- Access to expensive items, large amounts of money, and expensive products.
- Has an older partner and spends a significant amount of time with them.
- Meets someone online and gradually becomes isolated from family and friends.
- There are specific CSEC terms that the youth would use. It was not uncommon for the pimp to be called boyfriend or daddy.
- Running away and coming back with tattoos- pimps will brand the youth.
- Trauma reactions that include but are not limited to changes in executive functions and emotional regulation.
- Increase in social media use and posting pictures of the youth with older teens or adults and in places where youth could be at a higher risk for CSEC.
What Can Educators Do About Human Trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children
Here are some ways educators can get involved:
- Increase awareness by posting CSEC education around the school. A number that educators may want to have posted in their classrooms is the national human trafficking hotline 1-888-373-7888 and TEXT "BeFree" (233733). Downloadable Awareness Materials | National Human Trafficking Hotline
- Train all school staff- Here is a Free HT 101 online training with Polaris Project.
- Hold a community event and invite a local HT/CSEC organization to attend and be available for Q&A. Make sure that these events provide education that is socioculturally fitting.
- The school can lead a campaign to support legislation that targets root causes, such as protecting LGBTQIA+ youth rights.
- Hold discussions about the effects that suspensions and expulsions will have on youth that have experienced trauma and may be at risk for CSEC. These discussions could help shape the school'sschool's policies and be built on a foundation of compassion so that children can re-establish safety and trust after losing exactly that by the harm done to them in their own backyards.
Ivania Delgado, PsyD, MS, MSW, has a social work and clinical psychology background. Dr. Delgado has been an educator for 15 years. Currently, she teaches at Pacific Oaks College as a social work core faculty member. She is also a mother, hija, and partner.
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