Back when I was teaching elementary school, I used to flip through TV channels at night before going to sleep. One time, I landed on a movie that showed disheveled, miserable kids, who looked the same age as my students, being cursed at and loaded up into the back of a large van, like they were animals. It was a fictional movie but based on a true incident, and I stayed up late, first because I watched it to the end, and second because once it was over, I couldn’t fall asleep. I began researching and learning as much as I could about human trafficking and knew that if something this horrible was happening while I was on this planet, I wanted to do everything I could to try to help stop it.
No, Julia is not based on anyone in particular, but many traffickers and recruiters find their victims online. They look for kids with unmet needs or wishes and then convince those kids that they will provide exactly what is missing in their lives.
Sadly, no. Traffickers look for vulnerable kids, and middle school is an incredibly difficult time in young people’s lives. Middle schoolers are dealing with so much happening in their bodies, increasing academic pressure, changes in friendships, possible interest in dating—there’s a lot going on. Sometimes it looks like the other kids have it all figured out, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: no one in middle school does. No matter how pretty or cute or popular or cool someone seems, middle school is a time of confusion and change for everybody, and that’s why it’s a time when young people are especially susceptible to influence from traffickers.
Your story is set in suburban Virginia. Doesn’t trafficking mostly happen in big cities and in other countries?
No. Trafficking happens all over the United States, in both rural and urban areas, as well as in other countries. There are documented cases of kids being trafficked in all fifty states.
Sometimes traffickers hire people and pay them to recruit unsuspecting victims. It is worth it to the traffickers because they know they can make a lot of money from whoever is brought in. Using recruiters also keeps the traffickers themselves out of the spotlight and gives them less chance of being caught. Sometimes traffickers force or coerce people into being recruiters. In Tyler’s case, he wanted money and didn’t care about how anyone else was affected by his actions. It’s called grooming when traffickers or recruiters buy gifts, give compliments, and spend time with potential victims. People of all different ages, backgrounds, and genders are involved in trafficking and recruiting.
Many anti-trafficking organizations work closely with law enforcement to aid in rescuing victims. A lot of these groups also help people after they are rescued. Trafficking survivors are reunited with their families whenever possible, and safe houses around the country provide counseling, education, and other support as needed.
Be careful online. Keep settings private. Don’t ever post pictures that give away your exact location, and never accept friend requests from strangers. Even if someone is a friend of a friend, it doesn’t mean your friend actually knows the person. Traffickers often learn all about victims’ families, where they live, and whatever else they can find out from social media, then use that information as a threat if the victims try to leave. A trafficker might say, “If you try to escape, I’ll get your little sister to take your place.” Remember that people can take screenshots of anything you post online, so even if you delete it, someone may still have your information and use it against you.
Be aware that traffickers hang out where the kids are—in malls, parks, and other public places. Remember that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If a stranger says they want to hire you for a music video or a modeling shoot, don’t go anywhere with them. If it’s a legitimate opportunity, there will be a reputable agency that you can research and visit, with a parent or guardian involved and accompanying you.
If you’re ever thinking of running away, please, PLEASE find a trusted adult you can talk to. If the first person you try can’t help, keep trying until you find someone who can. Teachers, guidance counselors, clergy, other relatives, and the parents of friends can all be helpful. No matter how bad it might be at home, it can be even worse on the streets. Within forty-eight hours of leaving home, one out of every three runaways is at high risk of being approached by a trafficker or recruiter. Traffickers are sometimes called street psychologists because they quickly figure out what a person is looking for—perhaps a father figure, a friendship, or a romantic relationship—and trick that person into believing they will fill that void.
If you’re ever in a possible trafficking situation, you can text HELP to 233733 (BE FREE), and you will either be connected to someone via text or given a phone number that you can call to talk to someone who can help you right away. The person you communicate with will wait for YOU to call THEM back in the future—so you don’t have to worry that they might call your phone—and they won’t contact law enforcement unless you (or someone with you) is in danger. And if you are in immediate danger, it’s best to call 911.
There are many nonprofit organizations that do wonderful work in our communities and around the world. Human trafficking is a global problem that affects millions of people. In addition to helping locate, rescue, and assist survivors as mentioned above, these groups help prevent trafficking by educating people, because informed communities—especially in the airline, hospital, and hotel industries—can make a huge difference in prevention and identification of this crime. Making a donation to one of these organizations is a great start. Or maybe you and your friends could hold a fundraising event! Most importantly, talk to your friends and families about this. The more people know about trafficking, the fewer people will become victims.
Thorn is a nonprofit organization that builds and shares technology to protect children online. Their website offers a list of local anti-trafficking organizations in all fifty states.
I served for two years as a community educator for a nonprofit organization that works to free youth from trafficking. In this role, I presented a monthly trafficking prevention program to girls in a juvenile detention center. Often victims would be in juvenile detention after having been trafficked, but no one knew that this had happened to them. Because I understood the crime, they would self-identify to me, and I could then connect them with the right people to get the services they needed.
Victims may refer to their trafficker as “Daddy,” have an inconsistent story, lie about their age, not speak freely, not make eye contact, keep late or unusual hours, seem disoriented, have an older boyfriend, or have little or no luggage or money when traveling. They may suddenly possess expensive items, such as designer clothes, purses, or shoes. Other clues would be unusual exhaustion, carrying multiple cell phones, having a new tattoo or “brand,” growing isolated from friends and family, or being truant from school or a chronic runaway.