Human trafficking has been identified in all 50 U.S. states.1 The majority of the time, this crime isn’t being carried out by wanted criminals or strangers passing through town with dubious agendas. It’s happening at the hands of people in our communities that we know, live next to, or interact with.
90% of those who sexually abuse children in the U.S. know their victims; they could be family friends, babysitters, neighbors, peers, or family members. Only 10% are complete strangers.2
What is familial trafficking?
According to Kelly Dore—survivor of familial trafficking, Director of the National Human Trafficking Survivor Coalition, and Legislative Liaison for United Against Slavery—familial trafficking is the abuse or exploitation of a victim at the hands of someone they know.3 Familial sex trafficking, specifically, involves traffickers (who sell victims for profit) giving offenders sexual access to victims or pornography in exchange for drugs, money, or something else of value.4 Kids are the prime targets of this heinous crime, and their perpetrators are often right in front of us, hiding in plain sight.
How does it differ from child sexual abuse?
Familial trafficking has a commercial element to it. A child trapped in a trafficking situation could experience repeated, frequent, and ongoing abuse—from which the trafficker will profit. Of course, there’s some overlap; child sex trafficking is always child abuse, but not all child sexual abuse is trafficking. A child trafficking charge carries a more severe sentence for perpetrators so it’s imperative that it’s properly identified.5
More than 200,000 children are victims of sex trafficking in the U.S. every year, and their families or family friends are the most likely to exploit them. For 90% of victims, child trafficking starts in the home. The average age of a victim of familial trafficking in the U.S. is only five years old, and some children are victimized as early as infancy.6
They are American children. They’re in your schools. They go to your churches. If you’re a medical doctor, they come to your clinics.
Difficulty Self-Identifying as a Victim
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in four girls and one in six boys in the United States will be sexually abused before turning 18. Yet only 12% of child sexual abuse is reported to authorities.7
Many victims don’t identify as victims or come forward to speak out about what’s being done to them. They may fear the police or humiliation, feel guilt and shame about what they’ve experienced, or falsely believe what’s happening to them is their fault.
In order to maintain control, traffickers often threaten the lives or safety of victims and their victims’ loved ones. They also train children to avoid discussing their trafficking experiences with anyone. Victims are often fed lies and manipulated to keep quiet. If you tell the police, you’ll be arrested and thrown in jail. Abuse happens to everyone, especially girls; your friends just don’t talk about it. This is happening to you because you deserve it. You’re worthless and no one else cares about you.
At a young age, I looked the devil in the eye many, many times. I knew—if I disobeyed my trafficker—exactly what would happen to me. I knew the abuse. I knew how awful it would be. The scariest thing to me as a child was to come out and talk to all of you...to talk to a teacher, to talk to law enforcement. Because what I didn’t know was how the rest of the world would react.
Who are the perpetrators?
Perpetrators often don’t look like criminals; in fact, they can even be highly involved members of the community. Elijah Rising explains that familial traffickers are intentional about building relationships within their communities. They often hold positions of authority, are friendly and extroverted, strive to hold positions of power, and want to be well loved.8
In a Journal of Family Violence study sample, in which all traffickers involved were family members, nearly 65% of the traffickers were the mother of the victim, and 32% were the victim’s father. Almost 60% of familial trafficking victims have ongoing contact with their trafficker, making it exceedingly difficult for children and youth to remove themselves from harmful situations and protect themselves—both physically and psychologically.9
Traffickers who victimize their family members or those close to them take advantage of existing power dynamics. They seek extensive control over their victims’ lives. They know their victims well and understand exactly what makes them vulnerable. This position allows them to manipulate and groom their victims to do exactly as they’re told.10
60% of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are known to the victim but aren’t family, 30% are family members, and 10% are strangers.11 About 77% are adults, and 96% are male.12 The average “John,” or buyer, is a 40-year-old, married father of two who makes an average annual income of $75,000–80,000.13
How can I help the children around me?
One thing every one of us can do is trust our gut. If something feels off or wrong or if a child shows any signs of sex trafficking, take a closer look. Teachers and school personnel are the most likely group to come into regular contact with victims of familial trafficking—but are by no means the only one. If you suspect a child you know is being trafficked by a family member or anyone else, file a report with local law enforcement or contact the Human Trafficking Hotline. Do NOT contact the family, and never attempt to confront a suspected trafficker or rescue a victim yourself; you could make a situation much worse for the child and put yourself in serious danger.
Be a Safe Place
Hurt people often hurt other people because of the trauma they’ve endured, but we can help them break the chain of abuse. To any child who’s suffered abuse in your community, remember to always be kind. Listen. Build trust. Reassure children that there are trusted authorities in the community who will help them if they need it. Be consistent and stable, so a child knows you’re there if they need you. Continue to remind them how much they matter.
No matter the source of hardship, the single most common factor for children who end up doing well is having the support of at least one stable and committed relationship with a parent, caregiver, or other adult. These relationships are the active ingredient in building resilience: they provide the personalized responsiveness, scaffolding, and protection that can buffer children from developmental disruption.
–Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University14
Know Who to Call
- In case of an immediate emergency, call your local police department.
- Report suspected trafficking crimes to the National Human Trafficking Hotline or the Department of Homeland Security.
- Report sexually abused or exploited minors to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
If each one of us does what we can to stop this crime when we see it, together, we will create a safer world for our children.