Opinion

After-school Youth Leaders Serve on Frontline of Domestic Youth Trafficking

trafficking: Close-up of couple talking at cafe table with coffee cups and dessert

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Do you work with youth after school? Across our nation, there’s a growing concern about the rise in commercial sexual exploitation of children, often referred to as child sex trafficking. What makes a student vulnerable to becoming a child trafficking victim? Are there red flags for identification and early intervention? What resources are already available for after-school use?

Human trafficking is a crime based on exploitation of one human being by another for the purpose of making money. Labor and sex traffickers take advantage of vulnerable people for personal profit globally and in the United States. Children and youth are particularly vulnerable to being recruited by being offered jobs or modeling opportunities like the 12-year-old in this story who was recruited online in Illinois and travelled to Los Angeles for a modeling opportunity. Others are recruited by someone who pretends to have a romantic interest in the youth, girls or boys. 

trafficking: Sandra Morgan (headshot), director of Global Center for Women and Justice, smiling woman with brown hair, glasses, dark patterned top

Sandra Morgan

Potential victims may already have problems at home or in their community that increase their risk for being recruited. Traffickers are keen observers and identify the student who is alone or just trying to fit in without much success. Kidnapping is rare and carries a high risk for the trafficker if caught, so the more common recruitment strategies start with a seemingly willing victim who goes with them voluntarily. No chains. No handcuffs. No ropes. 

The control mechanism is psychological. That makes keeping youth safe more challenging than posting flyers or distributing cards with a list of red flags for youth to watch out for. A quick lesson on brain development tells us that a child’s prefrontal cortex — the front of your brain — is not fully developed until they reach their 20s. Why is this important if you’re working with a 12-year-old? That part of the brain is where we manage risk. It is how we decide if we are going to go with a new friend to the mall or take a ride in their cool car or agree to meet someone we met online. 

Adults look at those scenarios and immediately say something like, “They should know better.” We drill safety into them from an early age. Look both ways before you cross the street. Don’t take candy from strangers. 

But something happens in adolescence. David Elkin calls it personal fable and invulnerability that sounds like this: “I am unique. No one can possibly understand me. Nothing bad will happen to me. It won’t happen to me.” Our warnings are deftly deflected as they roll their eyes and tell us they can take care of themselves and we shouldn’t worry about their new friends. Trust me, they say. 

Even when we see warning signs of possible exploitation like sporadic and unexplained school attendance, chronic running away, an older boyfriend, changes in behavior, attire and relationships, we don’t know what to do or how to intervene. Our questions are met with resistance and concerns are rebuffed with assurances that they are fine, or accusations that you don’t trust them.

After-school activities offer a unique opportunity to identify those at higher risk with histories of abuse and neglect, running away, mental health issues or a family member with substance abuse disorder. Take advantage of the opportunity to build strength-based, peer-to-peer prevention into their community. 

It begins with educating your team about human trafficking and maintaining a trauma-informed space. A good place to start is with the trauma-informed approach of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, based on six principles: 

  1. Safety 
  2. Trustworthiness and transparency 
  3. Peer support
  4. Collaboration and mutuality 
  5. Empowerment, voice and choice (shared decision-making) 
  6. Cultural, historical, and gender considerations. 

After-school leaders offer a unique opportunity to build on the strengths of the youth and promote peer-to-peer prevention and protection. Education about human trafficking often finds a very receptive audience among youth who sincerely care about justice. 

Decentralize the message

Recognizing their empathy and teaching about what modern slavery might look like is how our Vanguard University Live2free students engage local high school and middle school students. The approach is education-based, not warning-based. Youth learn about slavery in products they use and food they eat using apps like Sweat and Toil and online activities like Slavery Footprint. They also learn about labor trafficking in U.S.-based agriculture, textile and service industries, as well as what sex trafficking looks like in our own communities. Online internet safety education tools are critical in today’s world. Netsmartz.org offers free resources in English and Spanish for children K-12. 

As a part of the education, youth learn what to look for and how to get help for themselves or someone else. The language is decentralized, though, not first person. We learned earlier from Elkind that adolescents will resist and deflect warnings as unnecessary for them because their brain is still developing. 

Consequently, it is important to use language that anticipates a possible situation in which someone you know might be at risk. This is a different way to think about the risk. Students are asked to role-play with their best friends: What will you say to Brittany if she tells you she’s going to meet the cute guy she met online at the mall? 

Now when you offer resources for how to get help for your friend, it is more likely they will put the number in their phones because they genuinely care about their friends, family and community. I have seen this response in many settings. The most profound evidence that youth care and want to protect their community was at a juvenile detention center where I was asked to speak to a group of 25 boys between 14 and 17. 

Honestly, they were mostly big and a little scary. I was worried that they wouldn’t listen to me, I’m old enough to be their grandma. I used the same model: Educate, role-play, decentralize the conversation, offer resources. At the end, one by one, security brought young men to speak to me. All of them had the same request that went something like this: Now that I know, I want to get help for my cousin. Or, can you get this information to my school, I think this is happening to one of my friends. 

After-school leaders, you are on the frontline. You can educate and build a community of youth who help keep each other safe. 

Here’s how to get help: Call 1-888-373-7888 or Text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733). The National Human Trafficking Hotline is available to answer calls and texts from anywhere in the country, 24/ 7. In an emergency call 911.

Sandra Morgan, Ph.D., RN, is the director of the Global Center for Women and Justice, co-chair of the White House Public Private Partnership Advisory Council to End Human Trafficking and co-host of the “Ending Human Trafficking Podcast.” 

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