The most vulnerable
to be in touch with their child's online use
While sex trafficking affects every gender, race, orientation and age, young children and minors are especially susceptible to trafficking situations.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said of the more than 23,500 endangered runaways reported in 2018, one in seven likely were victims of sex trafficking. It’s reported in all 50 states, and the average age of child sex trafficking victims reported missing is 15.
No matter the age, sex trafficking is defined by the U.S. State Department as when a person engages in a commercial sex act by force, threats of force, fraud, coercion or any combination.
Teenagers deal with a range of wants, needs and transitioning situations that can make them vulnerable to a trafficker. In addition to the struggles every teenager goes through, in situations of trafficking, a poor home life or peer crowd can create a very vulnerable person on the street, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Sweet of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Eugene.
“We don't want people to think of these kids as someone separate from our own kids,” Sweet said.
“If you're walking around the Eugene library and you see kids that are on the street, it's easy to see a lot of attitude and view them as separate. But they're not.”
“You end up with a drug addicted, teenage runaway where their support network, to the extent they even have one, is cut,” he said. "They're so vulnerable for a trafficker who knows how to come in and isolate them.”
Sweet and Denna Rawie, victim witness specialist for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said they’ve seen instances where traffickers come in and isolate youth by taking their phones and keeping them separate from their support network.
"They're so vulnerable for a trafficker who knows how to come in and isolate them.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Sweet
For Eugene sex trafficking survivor Lindsey Cooper, the man who purchased her isolated Cooper from friends and family, forcing her to leave her debit card and cellphone with her parents, she said. Cooper remembers him saying, “You won’t need your phone, if they want to get a hold of you they can call me.”
He then kept Cooper from calling or speaking with her parents, something Rawie said is common in trafficking situations.
Sex trafficking also is directly related to other crimes involving drugs, gangs and child pornography, according to Florence Mackey, a victim specialist for the Salem, Eugene and Medford FBI offices. Sex trafficking is a crime that assaults a community’s values and requires a specific response, she said.
“Lane County has a significant runaway and homeless youth population, a vulnerable group that is easily targeted and, because of the clandestine nature of the industry, is underreported,” Mackey said. “There are limited resources to support child trafficking victims and addressing the needs of a sex trafficking victim is a complex issue.”
Trafficking can look different with youth, said Sarah Stewart, executive director of Kids FIRST based in Eugene, because there are situations where they are not connected to a stereotypical male trafficker, but a female, and maybe even someone their own age.
Kids FIRST serves as the children’s advocacy center for Lane County and works with youth who have been victims or witness to a crime.
Kids FIRST conducts forensic exams and interviews that allow advocates to identify situations or risk factors that children and teenagers may have been involved with. It’s worth noting that Kids FIRST only handles cases of youth referred to them through child welfare services or law enforcement, so it can only go off of the information it has and the reporting of a potential exploitation or trafficking situation.
“We're going through (the interview process) figuring out how they're being connected, and then we identify it as a risk factor,” Stewart explained. “But we aren't telling someone you're a victim or survivor of sex trafficking. That's not really for us to say, but we will talk to them about our concerns about the risk and other interviews.”
According to Stewart, 6% of the children/youth served by Kids FIRST were seen for concerns of child pornography, online sexual exploitation and sex trafficking over the last year.
One of the focuses of the Lane County Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Multidisciplinary Team is to help children in trafficking and exploitation cases, Stewart said. The CSEC team is a collaborative effort between various local agencies that serves as a response team for sex trafficking and to provide survivors and victims with the best possible resources.
“If parents don't know what their kids are doing online, then they would have no idea if this was starting in their child's life.” -Sara Jensen, victim advocate for Lane County DA
A big part of what the team looks at is the targeting of minors through technology and the internet, said CSEC team member Curtis Newell, a Eugene police detective. Social media is a huge part of trafficking, he said, and parents need to be actively monitoring what their children are doing online, but also talking with them about safety and their online presence.
Newell has been a part of online sting operation that have helped gain access to minors being trafficked through social media or websites.
“Right now (social media) is a very large platform that the kids in our community use, and the traffickers do a lot of their recruiting through social media,” Newell warned. “I get there's a fine balance between spying on your kid, but at the same time, if they fall into the hands of these traffickers that's not a good situation for them to be in.”
Stewart seconded that. “It’s important to talk to (children) about safe online practices,” she said. “Youth have access to a lot of information, and people you don’t know have access to that information and information about your kids and teens.”
The work of several CSEC subcommittees, including Eugene Coalition Against Exploitation of Youth, focuses on education and awareness. ECASEY partners with local school districts to provide outreach and awareness of technology-based exploitation of children.
Sara Jensen, a victim advocate for the Lane County District Attorney's office and an active member of ECASEY, said a big part of group's work involves focusing on parents and ways they can keep their children and teens safe online.
“If parents don't know what their kids are doing online, then they would have no idea if this was starting in their child's life,” Jensen said. “And so when people say, ‘Well, this doesn't happen here, it wouldn’t happen to my child,’ it's sort of like, well, do you know what your child is doing online, because that's where it can start.”
While trafficking happens online, children also can be approached in public spaces that people assume are safe, such as schools.
In addition to the possibility that traffickers are present in these spaces, many trafficked and exploited youths still attend school, said Tamara LeRoy, lead coordinator for CSEC.
Parents and guardians should take active roles in their children’s lives and be aware of the potential dangers, advised Amanda Swanson, the trafficking coordinator for the Oregon Department of Justice.
This project was developed by Destiny Alvarez and Dana Sparks, Charles Snowden Excellence in Journalism reporting and multimedia interns for The Register-Guard. Follow Destiny on Twitter @DesJAlvarez or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter @danamsparks or email email@example.com.