In a time when people are relying on technology more than ever, it’s important to be aware that children are more susceptible to being trafficked through online interactions, the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance is warning.
Philadelphia has been identified as a hotspot for human trafficking due to its proximity to the Philadelphia International Airport and ease of access to the I-95 highway, said PCA, a nonprofit organization promoting justice for sexually abused children in Philadelphia. There were 540 human trafficking victims identified in Pennsylvania in 2019.
Trafficking is a crime that is difficult to get comprehensive data on because quite often it can be hidden in plain sight and victims often don’t feel comfortable coming forward, said Alea Cummings, PCA’s lead therapist. Previous studies have found that young people aged 12 to 14 are the most likely to enter the industry, and that 70 to 90 percent of sexually trafficked children have a previous history of child sexual abuse.
“A lot of youth will say when traffickers started asking them to go on dates or dance for the buyers, they think to themselves, this is what my uncle or neighbor or cousin who sexually abused them taught them what their worth is,” Cummings said.
Cummings fears that there will be a reckoning once COVID-19 is stabilized and in-person meetings start happening more frequently.
In the last two years, PCA has provided services for 211 cases of sex abuse in Tacony, Holmesburg, Torresdale, Bustleton and Somerton.
There are a variety of pathways to getting children involved in trafficking, but online enticement is becoming increasingly common, especially in the time of COVID-19 when kids are relying on electronic devices and social media for schooling and socialization. Traffickers could use popular social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram to contact children, but any app with a private messaging feature is possible to exploit.
“The most unsafe app is the one parents don’t know about,” Cummings said.
Traffickers will invest time and energy into building a trusting relationship with the kid, whether it be parental, friendly or romantic. Cummings said traffickers are someone the kid cares about more often than not. Kids are vulnerable, with traffickers preying on key weaknesses such as low self-esteem or conflicts with their parents and family.
After building trust with the kids, traffickers will lure them into situations where they are sexually assaulted. In some cases, the child will be raped and videotaped, with the tape used as blackmail so the child won’t speak up for fear of it being shown to their parents and friends.
“They’ll say to the kid, I own you now,” Cummings said.
In other cases, kids can be trafficked right from their bedroom. In an example, Cummings said the trafficker could pretend to feel depressed or suicidal so the kid tries to make them feel better. The trafficker will request pictures, videos or live cams of the kid undressed or fully naked under the pretense that it will make their online friend feel better.
Cummings recommends that parents lock away all devices overnight, as traffickers are more likely to act from 2 to 5 a.m. when the parent or guardian is most likely asleep.
Changes in behavior or mood, such as the child becoming more withdrawn or spending more time online than previously, can be signs of trafficking.
According to statistics published by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old.
Georgetown University Law Center in 2017 published a study that finds that Black girls aged 5 to 14 are perceived as more adultlike and knowledgeable about sex than their white counterparts.
“All children are vulnerable, but certain factors leave children more vulnerable like racism, poverty and sexism,” Cummings said.
PCA urges anyone who suspects a child is being trafficked to contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888. If you are a mandated reporter, call ChildLine at 800-932-0313. ••