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Preventing a Tragedy

According to the U.S. Department of State, there are an estimated 24.9 million victims of human trafficking at any given time worldwide. Those children and adults of all ages, backgrounds and nationalities are exploited for others’ profit and nefarious intent, robbed of the safety, security and autonomy that every human being ought to be guaranteed.

In recent years, forced labor, domestic servitude and commercial sex trafficking have seen an uptick in awareness. Dee Coleman, executive director of the survivors’ safe haven and therapeutic program Samaritan Village in Orlando, credits that increasingly visible messaging to “initiatives that the people in our world have taken on to explain exactly what [trafficking] is,” which have included not only advocating for victims and survivors but also tirelessly educating children, parents and teachers to advance prevention through recognizing the signs of a threat—which often originates close to home.

“A lot of the women being trafficked here are native Floridians,” says Coleman. In terms of children, she explains “it’s less likely that a trafficker is going to snatch your kid at a shopping center and more likely … to become someone in that child’s life over a period of time, and you might even know them. I can’t tell you how many parents we’ve spoken to who knew their young lady’s trafficker because that person groomed their way into the family and that kid’s life.”

Organizations like Samaritan Village work with adult survivors to give them the support, refuge and hope they need to move past a truly horrific part of their lives, with a trauma-informed approach to holistic healing very much focused on “the little girl inside the woman.” Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Florida has also developed its own support initiative, which has been painstakingly designed to help sexually exploited youth and victims of human trafficking reclaim their wholeness and their future.

“Our program includes multiple evidence-based treatment components, such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, dialectical behavioral therapy, cognitive therapy, individual therapy, group therapy, psychiatric services and coordination of treatment,” says Manal Durgin, M.D., the medical director at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Florida. “The Devereux Florida team partners with clinical teams across the country to ensure a focused effort on providing consistent and effective care for the individuals and families we serve, along with an integrated approach to behavioral health care.”

While it’s tempting to tune out the harsh realities of a human-rights abuse as incomprehensibly dehumanizing and devastating as trafficking, it’s not someone else’s problem somewhere else: It can happen anywhere to anyone. In fact, both Coleman and Jan Edwards, president of Paving the Way Foundation, cite the same sobering regional statistics that rank Florida third in the nation for calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline and Orange County as second in the state for child trafficking.

But they’re quick to point out that online grooming accounts for how most perpetrators worm their way into earning a child’s trust these days.

“Traffickers are in our kids’ bedrooms: on their phones, on their electronic devices, in the apps they’re using,” Coleman explains. “It’s become easier in some ways for traffickers to access our children.”

Education is one crucial step in community outreach that saves lives by debunking misconceptions, teaching children how to both recognize when they’re being targeted and smartly react, encouraging parents to be aware of their children’s online activities and interactions, directing concerned individuals to the professionals and authorities who can help, and making sure that survivors know they’re neither to blame nor forever marked as “damaged goods.”

Edwards also notes that even though “somewhere in our parental space, we think our kids should know better,” they need to initiate a difficult dialogue that might be hard to stomach in the moment but can be the difference between a child living the life they were meant to and being victimized by exploitation.

“We’ve got to become comfortable with the uncomfortable conversations,” she insists, adding that it’s important to approach that dialogue as naturally as possible while “giving your child the driver’s seat,” being careful to avoid any whiff of meddling, accusation or suspicion that will cause them to defensively clam up. “Starting a conversation can be as simple as saying something like, ‘I was on my Instagram page and I got this request from this guy who kept calling me beautiful and asking how I’m doing. I don’t know him and it was really weird—has that ever happened to you? What did you do?’ And then you shut up and you listen because you just opened a door to that conversation, and you let them take it from there.”

Parents should also be keeping an eye out for behavioral and appearance-based changes in their children, some of which may superficially look like ordinary adolescent moodiness or teenage phases. A dramatic drop in grades, a brand-new group of friends or older significant other, missing and/or sleeping through school, withdrawing into isolation at home or a sudden shift in how they dress could all signal that a child is being groomed or targeted.

Knowing not just your child well enough to pick up on nuanced changes in them but the truths of human trafficking can also be beneficial. It’s dangerous to think of it as more of a kidnapping situation than a long grooming process that a child with an undeveloped prefrontal cortex can’t typically separate from a friendly relationship, as is assuming it can only happen to girls since Edwards notes that about 30% of trafficking victims are male.

While Edwards says that Paving the Way focuses entirely on combatting human trafficking though awareness, community advocates are terrifically important lifelines in their own right, and keeping the lines of communication open is one way that increased awareness can save lives.

“I’m very committed to our communities being educated, and that requires everybody working together, everybody being aware of what this is and what it looks like, how to deal with it, how to talk to your kids about it, and then what to do afterwards if you find out your child’s being manipulated,” she says. “Parents need to fully understand how to have this dialogue with their kids because their kids want them to know.”