Probably most children, at one point or another, wonder what life would be like on their own or threaten to run away. My boys frequently joke about this every time I further limit their electronic time or increase their responsibilities. I’ve made it to the “bad mom” list more than once this month by way of both of these parenting strategies. But, ultimately, my boys know they are loved and cared for.
Little do children know the real danger posed to those who do run away. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “Of the nearly 25,000 runaways reported to NCMEC in 2017, one in seven were likely victims of child sex trafficking.” One in seven. Now, put in perspective, “88% of these likely sex trafficking victims were in the care of social services or foster care when they went missing.” (1) In other words, many of these children suffered a number of risk factors for being trafficked before they even ran away, unknowingly putting themselves in further danger.
Risk factors for child trafficking, according to Polaris Project (2) and an article entitled “Commercial Sexual Exploitation and Sex Trafficking of Children and Adolesents: A Narrative Review,” found in Academic Pediatrics (3) include the following: Recent migration/ relocation, mental health concerns (2), history of abuse or neglect, LGBT youth (3), homelessness, running away or being forced out of the home, those with a history of substance use, those in the foster care/ child welfare system. (2, 3)
Runaways are at greater risk for being trafficked not only because they are out of the care of their guardians, but because of some of the same factors which may have caused them to run away in the first place. Therefore, they are at great risk of being easily coerced or manipulated by one posing as a protector or benefactor, offering food, shelter, safety, intimacy, money, etc.
In all likelihood, if you are reading this, your child is not at a high risk of running away and being trafficked. Fostering trusting relationships and open communication with our children helps them to know they are safe and helps give them the courage they need to talk about troubling topics and to work through hard issues. That said, sometimes there is no accounting for the behavior of our children- and if you find yourself in the terrifying position of having your child run away, immediately call your local law enforcement and then the NCMEC at 1-800-THE LOST.
Additionally, foster relationships with your children’s friends and be aware of children or youth who appear to be completely alone. You never know when asking a few questions and being an open and safe place for a struggling young person could save them from harm. Also, familiarize yourself with the following sex trafficking indicators put forth by the NCMEC (4):
*Large amounts of cash, multiple cell phones, or hotel keys
*A history of running away or current status as a runaway
*Tattoos or branding related to money or ownership and/ or that the child is unwilling to explain
*Signs of physical abuse or sexually transmitted diseases
*Presence of, or communication with an older “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”
*Gang involvement, especially among girls
If you suspect child sex trafficking, call the NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST or the human trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
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