Hidden in Plain Sight: Domestic Human Trafficking

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In my previous article, I discussed an overview of human trafficking throughout the world and its prevalence  in even developed nations like the United States. The state of California, and particularly Orange County, where I live, and surrounding areas are hotspots for human trafficking. Fortunately, organizations that deal with trafficking are extremely prevalent here as well, such as the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force (OCHTTF) and a number of nonprofit organizations.

As discussed previously, human trafficking differs greatly depending on the area. In undeveloped nations, where it may be a cultural norm, it may be seen as almost accepted to sell one’s children into slavery, and law enforcement often ignores the problem, no matter how overt. On the other hand, in developed nations, it often appears much more subtly, with traffickers posing as romantic partners or talent agents and then turning on their victims after gaining their trust.

For instance, a girl may become romantically involved with a potential trafficker only to be strategically isolated from her family and friends or blackmailed, eventually pulled into trafficking. In these cases, it can be very difficult to successfully prosecute the perpetrator or to avoid blaming the victim. Nevertheless, it is very important to remember that even if a victim was only psychologically manipulated into this situation — or even if someone might have the opportunity to leave his or her situation at any point — victims of human trafficking, both domestic and international, suffer severe psychological trauma and may have developed coping mechanisms, such as Stockholm syndrome.

Because of these factors, it can be incredibly difficult to ever rescue someone from human trafficking in America or other developed nations. This means that the most effective means of ending this problem in America is awareness. Common sense, street smarts, healthy relationships and home lives: all of these make you less likely to become a victim of trafficking. However, according to a number of experts, including Veronica Stephens — president and founder of Action Force Network, a nonprofit in my area — the only real answer lies in educating our communities.

Veronica was kind enough to speak to a group at my school the other day about this issue. She also answered some questions for me concerning risk factors and warning signs that we can look out for in order to be cognizant about the possibility of trafficking in our group of friends. According to Veronica, since the average age that girls are sold into forced prostitution is between 12 and 14, traffickers “capitalize on the vulnerability and trust factors of [age].” So, age itself is a primary risk factor. Another extremely prominent factor is a broken home. Young adults who are from the foster care system or who suffer sexual abuse or neglect at home are very much at risk of getting involved with a potential trafficker.

Social media has also contributed to the massive proliferation of this issue in the past few years. Veronica explained more about social media’s involvement:

“It used to be that it would take a trafficker anywhere from a couple months to actually identify a girl and then to groom her. Now it’s a matter of days to hours, because of social media. They have direct access without the parents ever knowing, to be able to engage in a relationship online.”

In an age of Internet friendships and growing communication without ever meeting face to face, it’s not implausible that a teenager — especially one with lax social media habits or a troubled social life — could easily grow to trust a trafficker just through contact on a few apps.

Fortunately, there are some risk factors that teenagers can look out for within their groups of friends. Any sudden change, such as “dressing differently than she used to, especially with less clothing if it’s a cold day, or if you see a tattoo that she didn’t use to have, especially if she’s underage” is probably not a good sign for your friend, according to Veronica. These may just be signs of normal teenage rebellion or growing up, but it’s important to remember that a change in dress may be due to influence from a trafficker and that traffickers often brand their victims with tattoos.

Another sudden change could be a dramatic drop in grades or achievement. There are plenty of reasons for this: the normal stresses of growing up, one’s home life, a mental illness such as depression or anxiety, or just the fact that school sometimes gets pretty hard. Of course, for all of this, there could be any number of explanations. But, unfortunately, for many teenagers across America every single day, the explanation is that they are actually being trafficked or groomed to be trafficked. With a little vigilance and concern, even if it seems excessive or prying, you could be the answer to trafficking prevention in your community. You could be the answer to saving your friend’s life.

Susannah Sherwood
Susannah Sherwood is a biochemistry major at Seattle University with a deep love for writing, reading, music, and coffee. She dreams of a future in which she can pursue her passion for science while making time for the causes and people she cares about.

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