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Human Trafficking: What Parents Need to Know

As a parent, you do everything you can to protect your children. From making them eat their veggies to monitoring their online activity, you want to help them to grow up healthy and safe.

You may have heard about human trafficking on social media or the news, but you might not know that it affects children in every community across the United States. Children of all ages, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds can become victims of human sex traffickers in the United States.

One of the best ways to protect your children and the children in your community is to know the risk factors and the signs associated with human trafficking.

Who Do Traffickers Target?

Traffickers have been known to actively seek out children with one of more of the following risk factors:

  • Behavioral problems or mental illness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Sexual minority status (LGBTQ)
  • History of abuse or neglect
  • Exposure to intimate partner violence
  • Caregiver substance abuse or criminality
  • Poverty
  • Gang affiliation
  • Substance abuse

How to Protect Your Children

By helping your child develop and maintain a good self-esteem and healthy relationships, you reduce the risk that he or she will be targeted by traffickers.

  • Know what your kids are doing online.
  • Know who your kids are with and where they are hanging out. There are obvious situations, like being on the street late at night, but even places like the mall can be dangerous.
  • Teach your children resiliency.
  • Help your child build a strong self-esteem from an early age.
  • Maintain open communication with your child. Be someone the teens in your life can talk with.

Identifying Victims of Trafficking

Victims of trafficking don’t always look, act or think as you would expect. Not all victims of human sex trafficking are kidnapped and locked away. Many attend school but may have frequent absences. In fact, many victims don’t view themselves as victims at all.

Many victims come from situations that they believe to be worse than being used or sold for sex. They may fear or “love” their trafficker. They have been taught, either through experience or conditioning by the trafficker, to distrust authority. And finally, they may feel shame. The shame is very powerful in keeping them quiet and preventing them from asking for help.

Victims of sex trafficking may be conditioned and controlled through some combination of the following methods: starvation, confinement, beatings, torture, threats of violence to victim and victim’s family, forced drug usage, cultural beliefs such as karma and denial of medical care or medications. They may be experiencing trauma bonding or even Stockholm syndrome.

Some red flags that a person is a victim of human sex trafficking include:

  • Tattoos as a form of branding
  • Fake nails or hair, or “extras” that are out of proportion to what you’d expect the child to have
  • Hotel room keys
  • Fake ID
  • Numerous school absences
  • Dating much older, abusive or controlling men
  • Large amounts of cash, jewelry or new clothes
  • Signs of physical assault or unexplained injuries (branding or tattooing, fractures, bruising, black eyes)
  • Runaway or homeless

Get Involved. Learn More.

Beyond protecting your children and striving to be a trusted adult for the children in your life, several local and national organizations offer opportunities to educate yourself and others and raise awareness and support for victims of trafficking. Locally, Central Ohio Rescue and Restore Coalition works to coordinate a community response to human trafficking through education, services, advocacy and prosecution. Nationally, numerous organizations are dedicated to preventing and stopping human trafficking of children, including:

If you suspect that a child is being trafficked call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 to report a tip or get help.

Megan Letson, MD, M.Ed
Megan M. Letson, MD, is Program Director for the Child Abuse Pediatrics Fellowship at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. She also is an attending physician for The Center for Family Safety and Healing at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. Dr. Letson is active in the Ohio Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Section on Child Abuse and Neglect and is a member of the Ambulatory Pediatric Association. Dr. Letson is an active Member of the Ray E. Helfer Society and is a member of the Program Committee and the Program Director Committee. Her professional interests include child physical and sexual abuse and Medical Child Abuse as well as medical education. Dr. Letson is interested in the long-term outcomes of children with abusive head injury using a multidisciplinary approach to address the medical, developmental/ behavioral and physical rehabilitation needs of these patients. Additionally, as part of her interest in medical education, Dr. Letson has a Master’s Degree in Education through the University of Cincinnati.

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