Human Trafficking – Protecting our Most Vulnerable from the Unfathomable
by Tara O’Gorman, MSW –
Michael is a 15-year old teenager in southwest Washington. He loves reading, anime, and online gaming, typical of many teenagers. Michael also has Asperger’s Syndrome and an anxiety disorder, so his parents were thrilled when he finally showed interest in interacting with friends online. He has always struggled with friendships, so his parents thought this was a great way to begin to interact safely and comfortably for him without the heavy expectation of social interaction that had always been difficult for Michael. He is just happy his parents are finally giving him some space and not always harassing him about going places and meeting new people. His online friends understand what a drag parents can be. One of them, Jason, even offered to let him move in so he could get away from his overbearing mom and dad. It’s totally cool, he said. My parents said you could stay in our extra room.
Sarah, from a Portland suburb, met David in a chat room through an app on her phone. She is a 14-year old girl with some developmental disabilities and has always imagined she would grow up to be a princess, swept away by her loving prince. Her parents are very protective and have talked to her about stranger danger and safe touch. But David is not a stranger. He has told her all about himself, and they have been chatting online for almost three months. He is older… 16… but he loves her and wants them to be together. He even asked her to send photos of herself. She was a little uncomfortable with the idea, but no guy has ever even looked at her as a girlfriend before, so she’s sure David is just being romantic. He really is her prince. They are planning to meet in person at the mall this weekend. She knows her parents will not allow her to date, so she is telling them she is going to the mall with her best friend.
What Sarah and Michael, and their parents, do not know is neither of these teenagers is interacting with safe friends online. Both have been drawn in by human traffickers and are being groomed for a terrifying, and potentially deadly, venture into a dangerous world they are neither prepared for, nor will they be allowed to leave voluntarily.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, “human trafficking is a crime involving the exploitation of someone for the purposes of compelled labor or a commercial sex act through the use of force, fraud, or coercion [which] affects individuals across the world, including here in the United States… [and] affects every community… across age, gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic backgrounds.”(2017). The practice has been called modern-day slavery, and January has now been dubbed Human Trafficking Awareness Month in the United States.
There are two primary types of human trafficking. Labor trafficking and sex trafficking. Stop Child Abuse Now (SCAN) of Northern Virginia explains child trafficking as “the enslavement of children by force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of commercial sexual or labor exploitation. Children are tracked for use in sex industries such as prostitution, pornography, sex tourism and forced marriage. They are also used for domestic work, sweatshop work, migrant farming, begging and armed services.” The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) receives 10,000 reports of child sex trafficking each year.
While many believe the myth that the trafficking of humans only involves citizens of foreign countries, “Portland [Oregon] has earned a reputation for being a hub of human trafficking, in part due to its prime location along I-5. Some have called Portland the largest hub for juvenile trafficking in the country, but a lack of reporting makes it hard to quantify the exact number of victims in Portland and other major trafficking cities across the country.” (SCAN, 2017)
According to the Polaris Project website, there have been nearly 21 million victims of human trafficking, globally, with more than 25% of those victims being children. More than ¾ of those documented child traffic victims are homeless, runaway, or ‘throwaway’ youth, and the average age for initial involvement in trafficking of children is 12-14 years old, and, “in 2016, an estimated 1 out of 6 endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely child sex trafficking victims. Of those, 86% were in the care of social services or foster care when they ran.” Recent statistics show males to be victims of approximately 40% of trafficking situations.
While men, women, and children of all ages and backgrounds are victims, there are groups considered to be at higher risk for trafficking. Children in the foster care system, runaways, drug abusers, abuse or neglect victims, persons with low self-esteem, and children of addicts are all considered at-risk for trafficking.
Mental and physical disabilities are also considered risk factors for potential trafficking victims. Specifically, risk factors for those with disabilities include vulnerability to authority figures who would take advantage of those with social and communication skill deficits, lack of protective resources, and a diminished capacity for understanding personal safety and the motivations of other people.
Traffickers groom potential victims early – gaining trust, making false promises, and otherwise manipulating individuals into believing lies about love, protection, a better life for families, and financial gain. These promises and lies often eventually evolve into isolation, threats, and violence that keep victims from contacting authorities or fleeing trafficking situations if they are physically able.
There is little research on specific trafficking dangers to those with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). The connection is easier to make when sexual abuse statistics are examined. In one Canadian study, 95 adults with ASD were interviewed regarding sexual abuse. An astounding 78% of those interviewed admitted to being involved in sexual scenarios under coercion or pressure. (Medical Daily, 2014)
Dr. Gloria Arroyo-Grubbs, a Chiropractic Physician in Vancouver, WA adds, “With over 20 years of healthcare experience, specifically with individuals with special needs, I frequently discuss sex education topics to parents and young adults. In the past four years, I have seen more information on an increase in sexual abuse towards children with special needs, specifically due to parents not teaching the difference between appropriate or inappropriate touching, appropriate relationships, and sex education. This is not parents being naive but thinking that the children and teens would understand the information they receive from school, TV and peers, as most do, thus leaving them more vulnerable for sexual victimization. As a physician that works closely with children and adults on the spectrum, it is often a topic that I discuss with parents on a weekly basis.”
Parents, educators, and the law enforcement and medical community are often in the best position to recognize the warning signs that a person may be groomed for or already involved in human trafficking. Some warning signs include habitual running away, chronic fear and anxiety, an inability or an unwillingness to explain where the person has been, having older boyfriends or older friends or seeing a drastic change in types of friends.
Unexplained money or expensive gifts, keys to unknown locations or hotel rooms, tattoos or brands, STDs or unexplained bruises or broken bones are all warning signs that should be explored by authority figures concerned about a child or vulnerable adult’s well-being.
Ways to Protect and Discuss Danger
In Ben Wolford’s article, Sex Abuse Risk Higher for People with Autism, Prompting Calls for Better Sex Education, Dr. Shana Nichols shares, “Explicit instruction on appropriate sexual behavior is more crucial for people with autism ‘due to difficulties recognizing red flags and interpreting thoughts, feelings and behaviors of others’.” (Medical Daily, 2014)
Sarah Attwood, in her book Making Sense of Sex: A Forthright Guide to Puberty, Sex, and Relationships for People with Asperger’s Syndrome, (2008) mentions “studies carried out in different countries have shown time and time again that it is most often those young people who have scant information who become involved in early sexual experiences, often making mistakes they later regret. Those who are well-informed tend to delay their first sexual encounters, and when they do become sexually active, they have the confidence to negotiate effectively with a partner, and use protection. To put it simply, whatever the age of our children, sexual ignorance is not bliss.”
It is important to teach children about healthy relationships and boundaries. Good touch vs. bad touch conversations can be uncomfortable but necessary. Children and adults with ASD are often very trusting of ‘friendly’ people and cannot always sense danger or motivations. Talk to them about human trafficking, what it means, and who to trust if they feel pressured or threatened in any way.
Protecting children from trafficking means protecting them from predators who attempt to lure victims through online access, chat rooms, and social media. Know which social media accounts your child is using, insist on access to accounts and passwords for safety reasons, be ‘friends’ with your child on social media in order to understand what they may be seeing and doing online, set up guidelines for online access and safety, and use Internet filters to prevent access to pornographic or other harmful websites.
Brenda Huffstutler, LMSW, a Crime Victim Advocate and Mental Health Clinician with Lutheran Community Services in Vancouver, Washington suggests, “As parents, the best way we can prevent victimization is to talk to our kids. Know where they are going, find out who their friends are, and check up on them. If they aren’t comfortable talking to you, have another adult/mentor available for them to connect with. It is also crucial to know what your child is doing on the Internet at all ages and to limit this accessibility. There are so many apps, ways to hide history, create dummy accounts, and have access at all hours. If the Internet settings are confusing to you, take them to an electronic/phone store and have them assist you in setting parameters you are comfortable with.”
If a child has been a victim, parents should be sure police, prosecutors, attorneys, doctors, and therapists are aware of and trained to understand the specific needs of disabled/special-needs persons. There are specific trafficking organizations in most areas that can guide families to resources.
Points to Consider
Observers often ask: why not just leave? Fears of “being hurt or killed or family being hurt or killed, shame, guilt, fear of exposure, extortion through photos, nowhere else to go, isolation, and Stockholm Syndrome (identifying with captors/pimps and having conflicting feelings for them)” often keep victims in trafficking situations that may seem like a choice to some. Victims may be financially dependent on traffickers or simply have nowhere else to go. (Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking, n.d.)
For parents of children with ASD or other disabilities, hyper-vigilance is a part of our life. We constantly worry about our children’s day-to-day interactions, their emotional stability, and their future. We are self-described ‘helicopter parents’ and are always looking to protect our vulnerable children from bullies, inadequate access to the education system, and a world that is not always designed for their special needs. Human trafficking is a very real danger for our children, whether they are minors or legal adults, and we must face the danger as we have any other obstacle in their paths. Education and vigilance are already on our side.
Some of the simple, yet powerful, steps discussed above could literally save the lives of our most vulnerable.
If you have been a victim of trafficking or suspect that someone you know is in danger or needs help, contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888 or Text INFO or HELP to BeFree (233733) for advice and access to resources in your area. Local police, shelters, and developmental disability agencies are also excellent resources for advice on how to escape human trafficking and how to seek justice for victims.
Resources for Parents and Caregivers:
- I Am Jane Doe. Documentary film about young girls rescued from sex trafficking, and their parents’ fight to sue the website on which their children were sold. http://www.iamjanedoefilm.com
- ‘Making Sense of Sex: A Forthright Guide to Puberty, Sex and Relationships for People with Asperger’s Syndrome’ by Sarah Attwood
- Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale by Rachel Lloyd
- Sold by Patricia McCormick
- Human Trafficking: Man’s Inhumanities by Thom Winckelmann
- ‘The Boys In the Bunkhouse’ by Dan Barry – https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/03/09/us/the-boys-in-the-bunkhouse.html?_r=1
- The Polaris Project – www.polarisproject.org
- Human Trafficking Search – http://www.humantraffickingsearch.net/wp1/start-the-conversation-how-to-talk-to-kids-about-trafficking
- Programs and Assistance for Victims in Clark County, Washington: https://www.clark.wa.gov/juvenile-court/domestic-minor-sex-traffickingdmst-commercially-sexually-exploited-children-csec
- Programs and Assistance for Victims in Portland and Surrounding Counties: http://www.doj.state.or.us/victims/pages/trafficking.aspx and http://abolitionnow.com/organizations/rescue
- Feirie: Fit for the Journey, Mitzy Danae Leeper, (360) 772-1740 or firstname.lastname@example.org, offering massage, bodywork, trauma touch therapy, and a variety of services for victims of trafficking, sexual abuse, PTSD and more
- “At Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette we screen patients for intimate partner violence during their visit, including asking them if they have been forced to have sexual activity or have been sexually coerced by another person. If someone discloses partner violence or sexual coercion we offer specific resources to help them get the support they need and deserve.” -Austin Lea, Community Education and Outreach Coordinator, Austin.Lea@ppcw.org
A Parent’s Guide to Human Trafficking (2013). SCAN. Retrieved from https://www.scanva.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/HumanTrafficking_English.pdf
Attwood, S. (2008). Making sense of sex: a forthright guide to puberty, sex and relationships for people with Aspergers syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.clark.wa.gov/sites/default/files/CommercialSexualExploitationofChildren.pdf
Human Trafficking Hotline (2017). Retrieved from https://humantraffickinghotline.org/type-trafficking/human-trafficking
Human Trafficking of Individuals with Disabilities Fact Sheet (2014). Retrieved from http://dodd.ohio.gov/HealthandSafety/Documents/Human%20Trafficking%20Fact%20Sheet%2010%2017%2014.pdf
I Am Jane Doe (2017). Retrieved from http://www.iamjanedoefilm.com/
Polaris – The Facts (n.d.). Retrieved from https://polarisproject.org/facts
Wells, D. (2017). On the Track: Sexual Exploitation along the I-5 Corridor. The Gate. Retrieved from http://uchicagogate.com/2017/01/09/on-the-track-sexual-exploitation-along-the-i-5-corridor/
Wolford, B. (2014). Why People With Autism Are At Higher Risk For Sexual Abuse. Medical Daily. Retrieved from http://www.medicaldaily.com/sex-abuse-risk-higher-people-autism-prompting-calls-better-sex-education-298430
Tara O’Gorman, MSW, joined Autism Empowerment’s Board of Directors in 2016. She is an independent consultant and advocate with SpectrAbilities, dedicated to working with individuals and families living with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and consulting for organizations within the ASD community. She is a group facilitator for adolescents and young adults with ASD and is the proud mom of two sons, including an Asperger’s teenager.