The Power of Observation

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, as of June 30, 2017, 4,460 cases of human trafficking were reported last year—at least 19 of these victims are Arkansans.* In recognition of January as Human Trafficking Awareness Month, we are sharing tips to help parents protect their children. 

By Angela E. Thomas

Keep kids safe from human trafficking
 

It can begin with a young girl posting a social media status about a breakup with her boyfriend, about a fight with her parents, a post expressing dismay about having to move, getting bad grades in school or about feeling like an outsider. 

“Anything that makes her look vulnerable can be an opportunity for traffickers to move in. He’ll pretend to be a good-looking, 17-year-old boy or another 12-year-old girl who is also struggling. They’ll become friends and share information about their lives and eventually set up a meeting,” explained Louise Allison, executive director of PATH. “Social media has become such an open door to trap kids.” 

Partners Against Trafficking Humans, PATH, was founded in Arkansas in 2011. The organization provides services for victims of sexual assault and sex trafficking. They offer day services and run a safe house for individuals recovering from sexual assault and trafficking.  

“Our safe house is a residential center where anybody older than 18 may stay for 12 to 18 months and receive intensive trauma therapy for PTSD, night terrors and other issues associated with sexual assault,” Allison said. “We also partner with others to provide dental and medical care and Cornerstone Women’s Clinic in Little Rock provides gynecological services for all our female clients.” 

Their clients generally range from teenagers to adults; however, they have provided services for a 4-year-old child. Allison said it’s not unusual to find a situation in which fathers have been the perpetrators, or men who have “pimped” out their girlfriends. 

“We see all types of situations. Sometimes women are abused as children. They meet a man who is a sex addict or a sex offender and get married when they’re young, have children. The husband then abuses the children, pimping them out or uses them to produce pornography. And Mom simply shuts down because she is a victim. So the damage goes from one generation to the next,” she explained. 

PATH works with women and their children to help them recover and stop the cycle of abuse. They’ve just recently started providing services for non-violent sex offenders, who were not long-term offenders—“men who want to change their lives and don’t know how,” Allison said. Quite often they were victims. Statistically, one in four sexual assault and sex trafficking victims are boys. 

She offered the following advice to parents to help protect their children. 

• “Parents have a responsibility to spy on their kids.” The internet can be a slippery slope. “For instance, your daughter may go online to purchase a blouse. She decides to look for underwear and encounters a soft-porn popup. She clicks on it, and it leads to hard porn. It’s an easy thing to do from one area to another with popups. Spy. Spy. Spy. Look at their social media. Check out their phones, tablets and laptops.” 

• “Develop a close relationship with your child. Create and maintain open communication with your children. Be a good listener.” Institute a device-free, all-hands-on-deck dinnertime. 

• Know your children’s friends. "Question new friends, friends that no one else seems to know and friends your child doesn’t want to talk about. Red flags include ‘friends’ who say things like ‘You should be a model. Your mom doesn’t want you to be a model because she’s jealous;’ ‘Your father is too controlling;’ or who try to isolate your child by saying things like ‘I want it to be just you and me.’ ‘Friends’ who try to separate your child from her family and friends.” 

• “Allow your child to have friendships with other safe adults, people you know you can trust, like a neighbor who has children close to your child’s age. We once received daily, check-in calls on our hotline from a 14-year-old who was trying to get back to Arkansas. When she arrived, she went to her school counselor— someone she trusted—for help.” 

• “Look for changes in behavior, such as withdrawal or sexual promiscuity. Talk to and maintain contact with your child’s teachers and counselors. Often they may notice changes in behavior.” 

Ashley was victimized for 18 years—she is now a victor and works with others at PATH—and said she hid her abuse. 

“I became an actress,” she said, “but I’d ask my teachers questions like ‘what would you do if someone told you they were being forced to have sex.’” She said parents should also watch how their children dress and talk. 

It’s also important that parents believe and support their children when they tell them about abuse. Rachel has been at PATH for several months and said she told her mother; however, her mother’s reaction made her afraid to further speak up. “She said, ‘If you say something, no one is going to believe you. Your name will be in the papers and all the tabloids.’ I thought something was wrong with me.” 

Louise Allison is a clinician with more than 30 years of experience as a nursing administrator. For many of those years, she has worked with individuals recovering from eating disorders and sexual assault. 

“It’s vital that survivors recognize that they are survivors, no longer victims but girls, boys and women getting their lives back and stepping out of victimization. Healing cannot begin until victims are released from feelings of shame and guilt. We work to make sure our clients heal and stop the cycle of victimization.” 

If you or someone you know needs help, shelter and/or counseling, call the PATH office at 501-993-1641 or the 24-hour hotline at 501-301-HELP (501-301-4357). For more information about PATH, log on to pathsaves.org. 

*Allison said statistics are often difficult to accurately obtain because victims, especially boys, must recognize that they are victims, that they have been trafficked. “Also, I’ve found that often victims believe what has happened to them is their fault. They make excuses and believe the lies of their perpetrators.”