Risk Factors for Human Trafficking

Up until the last eight years, human trafficking was something I always thought of as being an issue in third world countries. It was certainly not something that would be a problem in Small Town, Kansas, USA.

As I began my work with children who had been on the run, missing, and often exploited, I learned otherwise.  It is very much an issue, and rural Kansas is not exempt from the problem. My personal work with victims of human trafficking has been with females ages 13 to 17, and the content within this article focuses mostly on that population.  Though let me be clear, human trafficking is definitely not limited to this population and is also an issue for adults and males.

What is human trafficking and how is it identified?

The Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as “modern day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” As a result of coercion and manipulation, females trafficked do not always understand this is what they are actually involved in. Instead, they will identify being in a relationship or a role of survival.

Traditionally in discussing human trafficking, one often thinks of what is referred to as a “gorilla pimp” or someone who controls their victims through violence or fear. Allison Pate, MS, of EmberHope, a non-profit, faith-based agency which provides residential and foster care services, identifies that a “Romeo pimp” can complicate the identification process. The term “Romeo pimp” refers to someone who gains knowledge of their potential victims and offers hopes and dreams. They may offer the option of moving away and having a better life where there is love and acceptance by the trafficker. The victims of trafficking often view this type of a pimp as a boyfriend and partner. Once he has been seen this way, victims are less likely to identify themselves as such.

If the involvement in human trafficking has been longer term, awareness of the trafficking is generally present and these females with experience can become a “bottom.” The term “bottom” refers to the female closest to the pimp and often a person that will help recruit other females. There is, without a doubt, a children recruiting other children problem in the United States. If they are caught while being trafficked, frequently the “bottom” takes the legal fall. Pate notes that locating the pimps themselves can be difficult as they generally have limited ties to locations, and often do not have a legal address or personally owned car. This makes tracking them down tedious and sometimes impossible. With the victims seeing the pimp as a partner or boyfriend, they generally are not willing to turn them in. Getting names or identification from the victims about the pimps can be a challenge. The girls will use a “street name” or type of nickname for the pimp and at times are unclear what the legal name really is.

Identifying cases can also be complicated by family members initiating the trafficking of a minor. For example: in one case, a minor was given to an older male in exchange for a car for the family; in another, the minor was married to an older man in exchange for the family’s financial welfare. One can see that these cases do not always fit neatly into the money in exchange for sex scenario, but are certainly still forms of human trafficking. Pate further explains, “There seems to be a rise in trafficking by parents in exchange for drugs causing problems identifying human trafficking cases.”

In working with females who have been on the run, it is understandable that there could be sex for survival situations. It is not uncommon to hear about sexual acts in exchange for substances for personal use. Many of these females tend to either deny or under report that they have been trafficked and report any sexual acts as a choice versus identifying coercion. In discussing how to pinpoint potential victims with Pate, she states, “Having multiple phones, or an older boyfriend can be a red flag” and that “doing the detective work” aids in the identification of victims.

Has the problem with human trafficking gotten bigger?

As awareness of the issue of human trafficking seems to be on the rise, the prevalence can feel higher. Pate states, “I don’t necessarily think it has increased, I think we have learned how to identify it.” In addition, the popularity of this type of illegal activity has been high because it is very profitable. As we have already identified, it is possibly harder to get caught than other types of illegal activity as catching and prosecuting traffickers requires the sometimes difficult to obtain cooperation of victims.

Who is at risk of becoming a victim? 

When talking about minors, several risk factors are present. Being in foster care or being in the Juvenile Justice system tends to increase the likelihood of becoming involved in trafficking as these children can feel abandoned or misplaced. This can lead them to engage in other behaviors such as running away, thus being placed in survival situations. There is a strong link between having a history of abuse and neglect and involvement in human trafficking.  “Approximately 90 percent of kids that are involved in human trafficking have a history of abuse and neglect,” states Pate. Children with low self-esteem and involvement in limited activities are at risk. Deborah Cochran, BS, of EmberHope explains: “They will be harder to get when they are involved in their communities and have a strong sense of belonging.” While females are significantly more likely to become a victim of human trafficking, males can be victims, too.

Being an illegal immigrant can put individuals at risk for involvement as there would be fear of contacting police or authorities if victimized. There are also, of course, times where it is puzzling as to why it happened at all and the risk factor is being young. Pate states, “just being a kid, just being naive” can be a potential risk factor.

What makes Kansas vulnerable to human trafficking?

Kansas has been named an “originating state.” In discussion about what that means, many of the answers involve our location. Kansas is located in the center of the country. Therefore, there are highways running in either direction making it an easy place to make exchanges and then be able to travel anywhere in the United States. In addition, there are three military bases located in Kansas and close proximity casinos which are targeted areas by pimps. Night clubs with exotic dancers can also be places that create opportunities for the trade of underage females.

How does technology affect modern day human trafficking?

Technology has played a role in both obtaining and maintaining victims. Many are familiar with Snapchat, a type of social media app in which pictures or messages can be displayed and then automatically disappear within seconds or minutes. This allows social media history to be erased and impossible to retrieve. Identifying victims and perpetrators then becomes more difficult with regard to being able to find concrete evidence when using these types of apps. Websites have been identified where trafficking services are advertised, and while they are continually being removed, a new one will appear or a new way of discrete advertising will evolve. In addition, children are increasingly able to access social sites that could create vulnerability. There are now numerous video games where children are able to talk with individuals they do not know online. Perpetrators have the access to gain knowledge about children as well as gain the trust needed to victimize them.

What can we do to stop human trafficking?

This is obviously a problem that has no easy solution. As a parent, it is very important to monitor internet and social media activity. For everyone, it is important to be diligent in knowing how to identify and report suspected abuse.

How To Identify a Potential Victim of Human Trafficking

The Kansas Department for Children and Families website lists alerts in identifying a potential victim of human trafficking:

  • Signs of physical abuse such as burn marks or cuts
  • Signs of substance abuse or drug addiction
  • Signs of physical restraint
  • Apparent lack of medical care
  • If the individual appears anxious, depressed, fearful, submissive or paranoid
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Exhibits unusually fearful behavior of law enforcement
  • Has an older boyfriend or new friends with a different lifestyle
  • Brags about having a lot of money and has expensive personal items but very few personal possessions
  • Is not in control of his or her own money or identification documents
  • Is not allowed to speak for his or herself and (a third party must be present)
  • Chronic runaway
  • Inability to identify where he or she is staying/ living
  • Has numerous inconsistencies in his or her story or has a well-rehearsed story

If you suspect that someone is involved in trafficking or if you have been a victim of human trafficking, please call the National Human Trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733. If the suspected victim is a minor under the age of 18, reporting should also be made to the Kansas Protection Reporting Center at 1-800-922-5330.

In order to support victims of human trafficking and other traumas, Prairie View has engaged in training clinicians and staff in Trauma Informed Care. Trauma Informed Care focuses on understanding the role traumatic stress plays in the lives of its victims and how to avoid or reduce the likelihood of added stress.

Tiffany Huxman is an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN), providing psychiatric medication management and treatment for adolescents age 12 and up, adults, and older adults through inpatient, outpatient and residential programs at Prairie View.