Trafficking: At-Risk Kids

By Kersley Fitzgerald

In order to fight child trafficking in a significant way, we have to reach and protect those kids who are most at risk. Which means we have to learn who they are, and then we need to be willing to reach past our own families and lives and choose to make an impact in their lives.

It's estimated that of the 74 million kids in the US, about 640,000 spent some time being cared for outside the home (foster care and group homes). This comes out to only 0.86% of the nation's kids but they comprise 60% of child trafficking victims. About 1.6 million kids spent some time as homeless, or 2.2% (undoubtedly there is some overlap between kids who were homeless and those who were in foster care and/or group homes), and most homeless girls will be approached by a trafficker within 48 hours of being on the street. It was mentioned before that, in foster care or out, 85% of trafficking victims were sexually abused before they were trafficked — again, this would include a lot of overlap.

As far as prevention goes, I see two major groups that need concerted care to protect them from future victimization.

Kids in "The System"

Kids who are homeless, in foster care, or in group homes are the most vulnerable, and for myriad reasons they are the hardest to reach. In many cases, the abuse that would groom them to become trafficking victims has already happened at home, and they believe only the streets give them the freedom to protect themselves. reports that approximately 80% of foster kids have significant emotional issues — a condition that makes these kids particularly vulnerable to the manipulation traffickers use.

For those who wish to make protecting children their life's work, there are several options. Courts need victims' assistance counselors to guide kids through legal proceedings. Kids also need lawyers, social workers, and counselors. Fostering is a calling — a lifestyle commitment. Foster parents have the potential to make great impacts on kids, but it isn't easy.

If a career or fostering is too big of a step, there are alternatives. Respite providers bring in kids for short-term care, giving their birth parents or foster parents a break as needed. Big Brothers Big Sisters mentors kids and provides services. Magnate schools designed for vulnerable children need tutors who will invest in kids' academic lives. Get creative and check out Google for more ideas.

There are several organizations around the country where you can donate your time or resources to help homeless kids. StandUp for Kids has outreach/drop in centers in seven states. Covenant House does everything from van ministries passing out sandwiches to staffing group homes in 22 cities. Volunteer at a mission or homeless shelter. For your area, just Google your city and homeless youth for ideas on how to help more directly. A quick search for my area comes up with Urban Peak, which helps kids in Denver and Colorado Springs.

Kids in Dangerous Homes

There's a story out from a while back about a Chinese couple who sold their kids to pay for their video gaming habit. Another couple tried to sell their baby to buy iPhones and shoes. That's a bit extreme. But every day in the US, parents traffick their children for drug money. Remember that the average age of a first-time trafficked child is 13. Which means half of all trafficked kids were younger. You cannot get that low of a number without involvement from parents and other family members. And 85% of trafficking victims were sexually abused before they were sexually trafficked. That equals out to some very young kids being abused in their own homes.

If you know abuse is happening, the obvious answer is to call the police. If you suspect kids are being trafficked, also call the Polaris Hotline at 1-888-2727-888.

You can't know if a child is being abused if you're not looking. Several websites give information on signs of sexual abuse.

But can we as the church make a lasting difference in the lives of children who have not been abused yet?

Abuse Prevention

A story. Way back in the long ago, when I was in the Air Force, I wanted to track satellites at a remote base in Australia. My co-workers discouraged me, saying that the environment at the base was horrible — everyone was depressed, and adultery was rampant among the active duty and the dependents. Later, I met someone who told me the base was the best assignment they'd ever had. The people were wonderful, and they were sorry the base had closed down.

A couple of years later, I met a couple who had also been stationed there. They said that when they arrived, it was just as bad as my coworkers claimed. Everyone was sleeping around. Marriages were in shambles. It was anarchy. They asked God what they should do, and God told them to start a couples' Bible Study. They were skeptical, but they did. People came. Jesus was shared. Relationships healed. Within 2-3 years, the base was a different place.

Social work in the church has a mixed review. It gets sticky when a church makes social work its primary focus or when churches dive too deeply into the politics of social responsibility. At the same time, God calls His people to help the helpless. My friends understood this in Australia, and Compassion International understands this. When we went to the Dominican Republic, we met a woman who said Compassion had made her a better mother. What they taught her was the basics — that she should hold her baby and talk to her, that her kids need good nutrition, that Jesus loves them.

The church can do this. We can teach young parents how to parent. We can help them with stress management so they don't feel the need to self-medicate. We can teach them the value of godly relationships, and even how the wrong partner can hurt their kids. It sounds basic, but it is. The most vulnerable kids are those with parents who most need the basics.

It may seem a bit tangential to worry about kids being abused at home when it comes to sex trafficking, but remember the statistics from before — 85% of trafficking victims were sexually abused as children, 75% of traffickers were sexually abused as children, and 85% of traffickers were physically abused as children. And according to Safe Horizon, it's estimated that of the 1.6 million+ homeless kids in the US, 46% ran away because of physical abuse and 17% ran because they were being abused sexually (US Department of Health and Human Services). Many of these kids' parents abused drugs and/or struggled with mental illness. Stopping the abuse and helping abuse victims heal could decimate the sex trafficking industry. Not to mention help a lot of kids.

If you suspect someone is being trafficked or a trafficker is grooming someone, there are several avenues to alert authorities:

Published 8-18-14