There is a common misconception that human trafficking victims are kept in cages and chains. While this is not outside the realm of possibilities in the most egregious cases, human trafficking is so pervasive, in part, due to how easily it can be kept under the radar.
Dark images of children in chains and cages are not an accurate portrayal of human trafficking and child exploitation. Rather, these children are often victims of psychological manipulation, isolation, and developed dependency on the trafficker.
Although the subject matter discussed on this forum is inherently dark, troublesome, and scary, we at O.U.R. try to steer clear of imagery that reflects these themes. It is not our intention to be purposefully obtuse, disingenuous, or flippant. We recognize that you can turn on the news or swipe through articles on the internet and be confronted with dark imagery all day long. We are not trying to invalidate or conceal the sinister nature of human trafficking. We instead seek to inspire our readers to get involved, rather than promoting fear, hopelessness, and helplessness. There IS opportunity to make a positive impact, and for these reasons, we choose to highlight messages of hope, persistence, and courage.
With that being said, it’s also incredibly important not to perpetuate stereotypes of human trafficking. Most people would like to believe that human trafficking happens in a far-away land, and certainly not in the United States. The following statistics say otherwise:
Although there are numerous factors that make children and adolescents more susceptible to human trafficking, it is important to highlight the fact that it is never the trafficked individual’s fault. They simply fall victim to highly skilled predators who have perfected the art of manipulation, coercion, and seduction. While it is important to be aware of risk factors in order to mitigate this problem, we must not forget that this could happen to anyone, and it is our responsibility to educate ourselves on what to look for, how to prevent new cases, and how to report suspected cases.
The following factors, which increase an individual’s vulnerability and susceptibility, have been identified: isolation, emotional distress, homelessness, poverty, family dysfunction, single parent households, substance abuse, mental illness, learning disabilities, developmental delays, childhood sexual abuse, lack of social support, and lack of education.
There are numerous warning signs that can be an indicator of human trafficking. It is important to look at the totality of the circumstances, as a single indicator on its own may not be enough to warrant concern. As always, it is best to err on the side of caution when trying to determine if an individual is in danger. There are physical warning signs, verbal warning signs, emotional warning signs, and behavioral warning signs. Some are easier to spot than others, and some are indicative of more imminent danger than others, but all are equally important to be aware of.
While not all traffickers resort to physical violence, it is not uncommon for victims to display evidence of abuse. For example, broken bones, concussions, burn marks, bruising, cuts, and signs of torture and/or restraint are all red flags. It’s also important to note that most trafficking victims go to great lengths to conceal their physical abuse, and will typically try to cover bruising and other physical markings with makeup. This is to avoid detection, protect their abuser, and appear more attractive to potential customers of sex trafficking.
Additionally, some traffickers will “brand” their victims to signify ownership. If you see two or more individuals with the same tattoo in the same spot of their body (most often on the neck or lower back), they could be victims of the same trafficker. Also, notice when the apparent circumstances of an individual don’t appear to match their appearance. Examples include a homeless, unkempt youth with new clothes and a brand new cell phone, and a young person with seemingly poor circumstances accompanied by an older, well-dressed individual.
Note the style of clothing the suspected victim is wearing. Are they dressed provocatively and/or inappropriately for their age? Are they dressed appropriately for the time of day and season? An overtly sexualized appearance is often manufactured by their trafficker in order to appeal to potential clients. Possessing large amounts of cash, fake identification cards, multiple cell phones, hotel keys, sexual paraphernalia, and slips of paper with dollar amounts and/or contact information are also indicators to be aware of.
Trafficking victims often report feelings of fear, hopelessness, helplessness, anxiety, and suicidality. They often meet diagnostic criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depressive Disorders, Anxiety Disorders (such as Panic Disorder), and other mental health disorders. Victims are also commonly addicted to illicit substances, which can be the result of forced consumption by their traffickers. This is done to weaken their willpower and force compliance. If a victim is addicted to heroin, for example, they’re more likely to comply with their trafficker if they are also their drug dealer.
Signs of physical abuse may also manifest in psychological symptoms. Victims may appear fearful, anxious, and paranoid. They may exhibit submissive behavior, such as poor posture, downcast eyes, lack of eye contact, lack of facial expressions, and may be easily startled. They may look to their trafficker to speak on their behalf, and may be unresponsive to attempts to communicate with them when they are alone. They may display an unfounded fear, paranoia, and resistance to communicating with law enforcement, social workers, medical personnel, and other authority figures, often as the result of being threatened and/or brainwashed by their traffickers. It is important to keep in mind that many trafficking victims don’t self-identify as victims, which demonstrates the insidious manipulation tactics often deployed by their abusers.
The following indicators are less useful to strangers on the street, but incredibly useful for parents, friends, teachers, and others who are familiar with the potential victims’ normal patterns of behavior and personality. A sudden change in grades, mood, and hobbies could be indicative of a problem. Bragging about a new job, money, possessions, and an older boyfriend are also potential red flags. Has their behavior and language become increasingly sexualized, evidenced by their social media posts? Are they advertising or making references to classified ads or escort services? Do they have a new affiliation with gangs and/or other criminals? Watch out for criminal behavior, such as petty theft and illicit drug use.
For school-age victims, there is often a significant drop in school attendance, and they may seem tired, disoriented, withdrawn, and unreliable. Most victims are forced to work what most would consider to be the “graveyard shift,” which is not conducive to succeeding in an academic environment. Do they have a sudden increase in travel, yet are unable to recall details that would ordinarily be known to someone taking trips? An example of this would be knowing what hotel they stayed in, but not being able to recall the name of the city they visited.
It is also important to note changes in language and word choices. Victims often pick up new slang words that are popular in the world of sex trafficking, and there is usually an increase in profanity. Additionally, they may have seemingly rehearsed lines that they use interchangeably on teachers, parents, police, and other authority figures. Victims are coached by their traffickers to alienate themselves from anyone they perceive to be a threat. This is done to avoid detection. Remember: this is an illegal business, and dishonesty is the only way to keep it going.
There is a common misconception that human trafficking victims are kept in cages and chained up like animals. While this is not outside the realm of possibilities in the most egregious cases, human trafficking is so pervasive, in part, due to how easily it can be kept under the radar. Being trained on what warning signs to look for make it a bit easier to spot, but there is unfortunately a lot of overlap between signs of trafficking and signs of “traditional” cases of domestic violence, child abuse/neglect, drug addiction, and mental illness. For this reason, it’s important to take all elements of a situation into consideration.
In any case of suspected human trafficking (or any type of abuse, for that matter), after recognizing multiple warning signs, it’s better to err on the side of caution. If you see something, say something. It could mean the difference between life and death. It’s also important not to forget what we think we know about human trafficking. Your average person would never picture a female when asked to describe what a trafficker looks like. However, a 2018 statistic reported that 35% of those prosecuted for human trafficking were female. (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime – Global Report on Trafficking in Persons) We have also seen cases of family members trafficking their own children, usually in exchange for drugs. This could be occurring in your own neighborhood, and unless we consider this as a possibility, it will go completely undetected. Additionally, most people don’t envision boys and young men when they picture victims of trafficking. This stereotype is incredibly harmful to that population of victims, as they are less likely to be identified. It is also important to note that LGBTQ males may be more vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking. (Polaris Project – Breaking Barriers: Improving Services for LGBTQ Human Trafficking Victims)
Although kidnappings do occur, this doesn’t appear to be the preferred method of securing a trafficking victim. Most traffickers are already known to their victims, either through family, friends, or online communications. In fact, a study in 2015 found that 55% of trafficking victims met their trafficker online, and had established a relationship prior to meeting. (Survivor Insights: The Role of Technology in Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking) It is not uncommon for a trafficker to present themselves as a prospective love interest, gaining the victim’s adoration, affection, and trust, before eventually exposing them to the horrors of their sinister intentions. However, traffickers are often incredibly skilled manipulators, and use of physical force isn’t always necessary to get victims to comply. They may say something along the lines of, “If you loved me you’d do this for me,” making the younger, weaker victim feel as though they have to prove themselves. In cases where the victim is starved for attention at home, or is seeking the approval of an abusive parent, you could see where this type of psychological abuse would work.
The most important takeaway is that although there are risk factors and warning signs to look out for, this could happen to anyone. Human traffickers are highly skilled at what they do, so it is our job to be highly skilled at knowing what to look for and how to combat this issue. Most importantly, if you see something, say something. (Department of Homeland Security – Blue Campaign)