If there is any silver lining to recent revelations involving billionaire Jeffery Epstein alleged recidivism (he entered a “not guilty” plea to recent charges this past week), it is that it has brought greater public attention to the ongoing tragedy of sex trafficking and slavery of minors.
According to statistics compiled by the advocacy group Ark of Hope For Children, as many as 300,000 persons under the age of 18 are either lured or forced into the commercial sex trade in the US every year. Many of these victims are brought in from outside the country. American-born children – primarily runaways or LGBT youth who have been rejected by their families – are also at risk. They may be of any ethnic or socio-economic background and represent every region of the country.
The question for the rest of us is what we, as concerned citizens, can do to help rescue these victims. The first step is to recognize the signs that a minor is being sexually exploited. Sometimes, the signs may be obvious. For example, you may see a provocatively-dressed young girl getting into an expensive automobile or truck on a public street or truck stop -- in which case you should attempt to get a license number or take a photo and call law enforcement.
Often, however, the indications are not as clear. You may notice a child in your life who is often accompanied by an adult who appears to be controlling and does not behave the way a loving parent or guardian should. Another sign may be bruising and an uncommunicative, fearful demeanor. Child abuse expert Marci Hamilton, founder of CHILD USA, describes it as “A child who only looks down and is clearly under the control of some outside force.”
If you are a parent, pay attention to your child's academic performance. A sudden drop in grades or truancy can be signs that something is going on. Other warning signs: expensive gifts that appear to have come from nowhere, or possession of hotel keys, drugs or alcohol. It is vital to monitor your child's use of social media platforms, as these are frequently used for recruitment.
A child who is being exploited may also have a tattoo – essentially, a “brand” identifying her (or him) as the property of a sex trafficking ring.
If the child in question is someone in your life – a son, daughter, student or member of a social organization such a church youth group, sports team or scouting – it is important to tread lightly when approaching them. Eliza Reock of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recommends that concerned adults “...make sure it’s not coming across as ‘You’re in trouble’ but ‘I’m here to help’.”
On the other hand, if you notice a strange youngster in public who appears to be exploited, Reock warns that attempting to intervene could put the child at greater risk. She says, “Usually if it’s a pimp-controlled or trafficker-controlled situation, then that child is being watched.” In such a case, the best action to take is to call 911 immediately and allow law enforcement to deal with the situation.
Keep in mind that if you are a school teacher, clergy, counselor, or scout leader, most states have mandatory reporter laws – meaning that if you suspect a child is being exploited or abused and fail to tell authorities, you can be held criminally liable. In such cases, it is best to err on the side of caution.