Tyson Wright serves as the Education Program Manager at O.U.R. He oversees Speak Up and Students Against Trafficking, programs aimed at prevention through education and empowerment in schools and communities around the world. He sits on the board of the Washington County Children’s Justice Center and volunteers in his community as an advocate against abuse. He is married with two young children and one on the way.
After people learn about human trafficking and the evil that exists in the world, one of the most common questions we get asked at O.U.R. is, “How do I protect my kids?” There are so many possible answers, with each as good as the last. Because of the complex nature of these crimes and the wide array of ways exploitation happens, we can quickly be overcome by feelings of hopelessness and discouragement. Many times, to conquer that feeling, we focus on a specific situation and develop the “answer” to that problem: If I just keep my kids close and don’t let them get kidnapped, then they will be safe from trafficking and exploitation, we might tell ourselves. However, instead of focusing on situational solutions, we’d like to highlight four things parents and caregivers can do to help build a foundation of prevention that will reach into all aspects of protecting our kids. They are:
Accept the reality of what we are facing.
Know our role as a parent or caregiver in protecting children.
Understand the tactics predators use.
Start the conversation with our kids.
First, we need to accept and understand the reality that there are those in the world who will take advantage of our kids. There are those who will look to manipulate them for financial gain or sexual gratification, among other types of exploitation. Being ignorant to this fact, or refusing to accept it, is not protecting our kids and only increases their risk of being abused or exploited. Many times when people learn about human trafficking, they ask, “Is this really happening?” The answer, sadly, is Yes!
The online world is becoming a place where we spend more and more time as a society. Over the last few years, technology has become even more a piece of our lives. We turn there for current events, both local and global, connection to family and friends, learning and knowledge, and entertainment.
As we move our lives more into this digital space, those seeking to exploit move there, too. Predators go where the supply is. In a short video put out by the FBI in 2011, Cyber Safety, Shawn Henry, Executive Assistant Director of the FBI, puts the risk in a plain and easy way to understand. He says, “At any given time, there are an estimated 750,000 child predators online—and they all have a key to your house via the Internet” (FBI, 2011). These are people who are online at any given moment for the purpose of exploiting a child, and that estimation comes from 2011. You can only imagine what the numbers are today. It is our opinion that it isn’t a matter of if a predator is going to reach out to your child online, it is a matter of when.
While it’s hard to hear, accepting the reality that there are predators in the world who are targeting children allows us to prepare ourselves to fill our role as parents and caregivers who protect them.
Second, we need to understand that our role as a parent or caregiver is to protect our children. This comes above and before all other roles we might have in life. A child comes into this world with so much innately part of who they are, but one of the things they lack is the ability to protect themselves. That is something they must learn as they grow and develop. Until they learn it, it is our role as parents and caregivers to fill this role in keeping our children safe. We can all recall in our lives at least one time, if not more, where we were warned of a hot stove burner or perhaps to be careful as we stood on an edge higher than we realized. Likewise, we need to be ready to protect our children from all dangers they might face.
Not too long ago a family friend, Hailey, reached out looking for advice on a situation. Knowing what I do for work, she felt I could offer some direction and support. Her daughter, Erica, had been playing with a friend, Sarah, whom she met at school. They liked to draw, play dress up, and make believe—all the things two first graders should be doing. One day Erica told my friend, her mother, that Sarah was her girlfriend now because Sarah kissed her on the bus. This was a shock to my friend because they had had many talks about not letting anyone touch her or kiss her. She reiterated to Erica that if Sarah tries again that she needs to ask her to please stop. Later, while looking through Erica’s art journal that she colors in while riding the bus to school, Hailey found drawings that raised concern: stick figure pictures with detailed private parts in sexual acts. When she talked to Erica about it, Erica said that Sarah had drawn them in her journal and taught her how to draw them, too. This added to Hailey’s concern, and she was now looking for some advice and wondering if she were overanalyzing things. Too often we let thoughts of I don’t want to make them feel weird, I don’t want to offend, I don’t want to ruin friendships, Maybe I am just overthinking it, They are nice people, or I will just pay closer attention stop us from doing what we need to do to protect our children. But if it feels “off” or strange, then it probably is. Trust that gut feeling and take action to keep your kids safe.
I told my friend that she should approach Sarah’s parents and talk to them about what was happening, that she should set boundaries to keep her daughter safe, such as no playdates at Sarah’s house, that she should talk to the school counselor about the situation and get their support while Erica is at school. These things can be hard to do, and that little voice will pop into your head saying, You are crazy and making too much of this. You can just pay more attention. But you will never regret protecting your children. You can also make that difference in someone else’s life. There was no solid evidence or facts proving that Sarah was being abused, but there were a lot of red flags. Never miss the opportunity to help someone get the support they need by not reporting.
We should not be afraid of offending someone or making them feel awkward when it comes to protecting our children. We should put their protection first on our priority list and do all we can to keep them safe. If there is a situation that makes you uncomfortable or the actions of someone raises suspicion, don’t hesitate to be the voice of protection for your child, or other children who may not have an advocate. It will send the message that you are aware, involved, and active in your child’s life.
Third, we need to understand how predators exploit children. Their tactics aren’t anything new. Through the process called “grooming,” predators target an individual, build trust and learn information about them, and seek to isolate, exploit, and maintain control. There are countless examples we could share of individuals who have been manipulated and exploited, but it’s more important to focus on the root of the problem: vulnerabilities.
As humans, we all have needs. We all need to eat and drink and rest our heads. We all need safety, security, and belonging. We all need friendship, community, and connection. That natural drive to meet these needs can create vulnerabilities in our lives. The reason that these needs aren’t being met can vary from individual circumstances to systemic, political, and cultural issues. Generally, the vulnerability that exists in an individual’s life isn’t due to a choice they made. Take, for example poverty, the largest vulnerability exploited by traffickers worldwide. Most people facing poverty find themselves there due to inequality in access to education or medical care, natural disaster, or war and political unrest. They didn’t come into it as a consequence of their actions.
Maybe more relatable is the need for connection, friendship, belonging, and acceptance. No one likes to feel alone, disconnected, picked on, and marginalized. Just like our other needs, if we don't have these things, we are going to go seeking for them, and this makes us vulnerable. Predators and traffickers know this and they are waiting to fill those needs.
Those looking to abuse and exploit are the nicest, kindest people you will come across. They want to build friendships and offer support through relating to the struggles we are going through. They target those who have more vulnerabilities, those who are seeking to fill the gaps in their life, and then they fill that need. It might start as a promised job that will lift that person out of the poverty they are trapped in. It might start as a listening ear to that child who is bullied at school or whose parents don’t understand. It might start as a friend for that LGBTQ+ identifying teen who finds no support at home or in their community.
We need to be aware of who predators are targeting and the tactics they are using to manipulate and exploit them. We need to recognize the vulnerabilities that exist in our lives, our children’s lives, and in the lives of others we are close to. We should seek ways to break down the issues that are causing these vulnerabilities to exist and build systems of support for those in need. Be active in your kids’ lives. Know the challenges they are facing and the struggles they are having.
Fourth, we need to start having conversations with our kids now. Notice that we use the word “conversation,” not “lecture” or “training.” By a young age, our kids have had life experiences that are developing their thoughts and impressions of the world. They are not just empty vessels. As they grow and mature, those thoughts become ideals, morals, and values which we as parents and caregivers should seek to understand and support. One way to do this is by allowing them to be participants in the conversation.
I want to share with you an experience I have had time and time again with almost the exact same outcome each time. In my work for O.U.R., I get the opportunity to present in school and youth groups across the country about human trafficking and online safety. I get the benefit that many parents don’t get: I am the “cool guy” from O.U.R. and not the “lame” parent or teacher, so kids will generally be more open in our conversations. During presentations to grade school-age kids, I go into detail on how predators groom their targeted individuals. I highlight the stages of grooming that include identifying a target, building trust, isolation, exploitation, and maintaining control. I have the kids identify how they would feel if caught in this cycle. Many use words like trapped, guilty, ashamed, afraid, stupid, and stuck to define how they would feel. From there, I ask, “If you were stuck in this spot, being manipulated and exploited by someone, how many of you would go to your parents or an adult for help?” Generally, about 10% of kids in the room raise their hands—most the time, less than 10%—demonstrating what we know: that all types of abuse, including online exploitation and trafficking, are underreported. I follow up by asking, “Why won’t you go to your parent or an adult for help?” Answers to this generally include, My parents will get mad at me, They will make it my fault, They will take away my phone or device, and fear of the threat a predator made.
Kids don’t feel empowered to break the cycle of abuse because they don’t feel like the support system they need is there. We can start to change this today by bringing children into the conversation as active participants and not as just those who need to be taught. Let’s listen to them and learn how we can act in a way that provides the love, support and protection they need. Learn from the knowledge and insight your children have to offer. Be directed by them as to how you can react if they were to come to you and disclose that abuse has happened. Together you can develop a plan that empowers them with the certainty that you are there for them not just in protection, but in love and support.
With these four points in mind, we will be better equipped to protect our kids by accepting the fact that there are predators in the world, understanding our role as parents and caregivers to protect, knowing the tactics predators use to groom children, and starting the conversations with our children today.
We can do more though. We can take action in the fight against child sex trafficking and sexual exploitation by supporting O.U.R. programs aimed at empowering children and parents. Through programs such as Speak Up and O.U.R.’s Start Talking: An Online Safety Guide for Parents, we can build the capacity of the support systems that should be there for kids to disclose exploitation and/or abuse. Take the first steps by increasing your own understanding and education on these prevention topics, then spread the word in your communities. Talk to your schools and districts about implementing prevention programs such as Speak Up into the curriculum. Invite an O.U.R. speaker to present to a youth group in your community about online safety. Support the mission of O.U.R. with donations that make it possible to provide these types of materials and programs in schools in addition to the Operations and Aftercare support we offer globally.
We need your continual support in this fight. We are proud to stand side by side with you as we fight human trafficking.