Human trafficking of children sounds like one of those “ripped from the headline” episodes of Law & Order for a reason. Both the original series and Law & Order SVU devoted episodes on the issue. Unfortunately, it is a topic that has not been in the news enough.

Sophia Grant, M.D., F.A.A.P,  a physician for Cook Children’s CARE (Child Advocacy Resource and Evaluation) Team wants you to know child trafficking happens in your own backyard, more than you may have ever realized. The national human trafficking hotline receives more calls from Texas than any other state.

“Sometimes when we hear these awful things we try to remove ourselves and say it can never happen in my neighborhood,” Dr. Grant said. “It can never happen to a child with two parents in a home. It can never happen to a kid who goes to prep school. But with the rise of social media and how connected people are, what people fail to realize is that these perpetrators, these pimps, stalk children in the social media. They develop fake Facebook accounts, they friend people and before you know it, kids are having a conversation with a so called friend who is a 37-year-old man looking to meet them at the mall so he can pull them into that life.”

 What is Trafficking of children?

Trafficking of children is the buying and selling of children. That can mean sex in exchange for money. It can be forced labor and it is done under coercive circumstances. In terms of domestic minor sex trafficking, frequently people get lured into this because, for instance, a 14-year-old girl may be dating a 30 year-old man and she feels grown up. He makes her feel safe. Frequently, these victims come from abusive homes and so in being with somebody older, she may be getting a parent figure, but she’s also getting somebody who may be telling her that he loves her and he will take care of her.

But this is not that episode of your favorite crime drama. This is real life and it’s not just those people. It’s far too common in the U.S. Between 100,000 to 300,000 children in the United States are forced into sexual slavery every year. The children are typically between the ages of 12 to 13, but there are even younger victims.

The life of a child who is trafficked

The life expectancy for children involved in this lifestyle is seven years. They die from abuse, beatings, the wear and tear of their young, developing body, disease, suicide and drug addiction. “It’s just awful and I think until I became aware of this issue I thought it was in the far East perhaps in Thailand, maybe parts of India, but to know it’s taking place in Texas, California, New York, Florida, all over the country, it’s absolutely sickening,” Dr. Grant said.

Frequently, kids who perceive themselves as rebels, the 14-year old girl already with a tattoo, may have high-risk taking behavior, such as taking drugs. Their actions could place them around people whose only goal is to victimize them.

Dr. Grant said insecurity and low self esteem often leads to kids looking for something else and that gets them in danger. “That applies to so many of our young people,” she said. “During adolescence, when children are trying to find out who they are, where they fit in the world, they may be butting heads with their parents and perceive their parents as their enemy, those kids are potential victims.”

Children who are already victimized in their home, sexually or physically, may choose to get out of that home and end up in a situation that’s just as horrible, if not worse. When they run away, typically within 48 hours of running away, these girls have made contact with someone who is looking to prostitute them on the streets.

“But it’s important to remember that a child who has none of those behaviors, say you just have a 15 year old with low self esteem, that child could be lured into this lifestyle,” Dr. Grant said.  

She encourages parents to pick up the book, “The Slave Across the Street.” The book tells the story of a young girl with an affluent background, who after she was sexually assaulted by a classmate became involved in sex trafficking through threats and violence against her.

“I hope people don’t see the child as a child prostitute as much as a child who is being prostituted. Just in the difference in phrasing that, if you say a child prostitute it sounds like she’s a prostitute. She’s a hooker. But if you say a child is being prostituted, that implies she is a victim.

There is so much sexualization of children. Sexy dolls are just grossly inappropriate. Little girls dressing as women. We now have sexy underwear for children.

She also warns against the glamorization of the issue. Pimps are not cool. They are dangerous people. Shows like “Pimp My Ride” and expressions such as “pimped out,” implying dressing up and fancy, have taken away from the harsh reality of pimp violence and brutality.

“We need to change our thinking.”

 Safe guards

Dr. Grant said there are steps parents can take to protect their children. The first is to realize young children through adolescence are at a very vulnerable age, and all potential victims. Other ways to look after your child include:

Know your kid’s friends. You can’t let your child hang out with people, go over to somebody’s house and sleep over at somebody’s house if you don’t know the parents. “You can’t say, ‘Oh yes I know my daughter’s friend and she seems like a cool girl because people who lure kids into this they have plants in high school,” Dr. Grant said. “They have young people, 14, 15, 16 year olds, prostituted themselves, who go into schools and their sole aim is to recruit people into this lifestyle so know your kid’s friends, know their parents.

Be a parent, not a friend. Dr. Grant said she has no problem with telling her kids, “No.” “I’m not trying to be in a popularity contest. I’m trying to parent them.” She doesn’t care that everyone else is going to a party. Dr. Grant reminds parents they have to be really mindful of what their children are doing at all times. A child under 13 should not have a Facebook account, but she said she knows of plenty of children who have one when they are not supposed to and even if they are a minor, children’s Facebook pages should be heavily monitored. Dr. Grant doesn’t perceive it as an invasion of privacy to ask children, ‘Where you going?’ ‘Who are you going with?’ ‘What are you doing?”  ‘How do you know this person?’ She said it’s simply parenting.

Beware of social media. “In terms of social media, I would not allow my children to share information,” Dr. Grant said. “People don’t need to know your location. You don’t need to publicize where you go to school. You don’t need to publicize where you live. I wouldn’t put any identifying information on social media. You don’t need your cheerleading picture with your high school name on it.” Dr. Grant advises parents to check their child’s smart phone and make sure they have turned their location settings off. With the settings on, you can tell where that picture was taken. She also warns parents of letting their children play against strangers from remote locations on videogames.

“We live in an age where there’s so much connectivity,” Dr. Grant said. “Our children will make contact with people who they would never ever come across in their day to day comings and goings.”

Going forward

Dr. Grant first became aware of this issue at her church. Among all the pamphlets of mentoring programs and marriage counseling she saw a flier on sex trafficking of young children.  She read the flier and thought this is something she needed to not only educate herself on, but become involved.  “But then I said, ‘Sophia you are so busy, you have three kids and you work full time and all that, you don’t have time,” Dr. Grant said. “Then I heard something on NPR talking about 12 year old girls as prostitutes in northern California. They are in the sixth grade and they are hooking on the streets. After hearing that and having this flier I decided because of what I do, I might be seeing girls who are potential victims.”

Dr. Grant received training at Traffick911. In February 2012, she spoke on this issue to educate more than 100 people from Cook Children’s and health providers in the community. She also has taken steps to make sure Cook Children’s is more involved in this issue including:

  • Cook Children’s forensic nurses, Araceli Desmarais, RNC, CA/CP SANE and Brenda Crawford, RN, CA/CP SANE and Dr. Grant underwent additional training through Traffick911 to teach a primer to health care professionals and teens.
  • Contacts have been made with local school nurses to go into the schools and teach the nurses and the students about the “Traps of a Trafficker.”
  • Nursing education at Cook Children’s has been contacted about starting to teach Trafficking recognition to the ER staff, with a goal to make the training mandatory for all ER nurses.
  • Delta Airlines has been contacted and a meeting has been scheduled to discuss teaching flight attendants about what to be aware of when spotting a trafficked child. Crawford has been an attendant with Delta for 18 years. Victims are frequently transported via air for trafficking. Delta was the first airline to recognize this and seek to train their employees.
  • Dr. Grant has applied to speak at the Healthy Teen Network National Conference (notification pending) to speak about the trafficking epidemic and also to address the Traps of a Trafficker.
  • She has reached out to other child abuse doctors to see what they do.
  • Dr. Grant developed a screening questionnaire that is administered to sexual assault victims to screen for trafficking. If they have already been trafficked or are at risk for that lifestyle, they are given phone numbers to call/keep when they need to or are ready to do so.
  • She is on the medical advisory group for Triumph House, the rehabilitation/restoration facility that Traffick911 hopes to open up for rescued victims.
  • Dr. Grant requested to join the North Texas Anti-Trafficking Task Force through the Crimes Against Children department of the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office.

“My goal is to talk to people on the frontlines, people like myself, people in the emergency rooms, law enforcement, health care providers,” Dr. Grant said. “Lots of times we see kids who are potential victims or have been victims and we don’t’ recognize that it’s a lost opportunity to educate. If they are a teen, they won’t get out of that life unless something prompts them to. The trauma bonds are so strong that they will continue to stay in that life. If you can say, ‘Hey listen I’m concerned about you. I don’t know if you realize this, the life you are living, it’s a not healthy life. You might feel like these choices you are making are your choices but I can tell you that things are going to happen that you won’t like.’ It’s important to just say, ‘I’m here’ and give them an information card that they can call if they decide they need help. It’s just like an alcoholic or drug addict, they have to make that choice for themselves.”

Dr.  Grant wants people to know about this issue and change any perception of children who are involved in trafficking. She said trafficking is where domestic violence was 30 years ago. Back then, women who were in a domestically violent situation would be dismissed; people would say they should just leave. But just like today, people have no idea of the psychological attachment, or trauma bonds, that are created by the perpetrator.

“People were somewhat insensitive back then. There were no shelters. There were no programs. Nobody who specialized in this,” Dr. Grant said. “Thirty years later, people are more aware. They understand the trauma bonds. They understand a little bit more about why people stay. My goal is to get this issue of child trafficking in the forefront. I hope it doesn’t take 30 years.”