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Human trafficking: Your children are safer at Walmart than on social media

Guest column

If you have a Facebook or Twitter account, or know someone who does, you have likely heard people’s recent reports about suspicious men at area businesses who supposedly walk around searching for their next victim to kidnap for the purpose of sex trafficking. These fears are not based on facts. Because of the way Hollywood movies and TV shows depict sex trafficking, there seems to be a widespread belief that human traffickers are strangers who travel from other areas to kidnap women and children and use violence to force them into being sold for sex. However, this is not how sex trafficking happens in real life. According to Iron Mountain Police Department Director Ed Mattson, “There is more of a danger for kids to be targeted for sex trafficking by someone they meet online rather than in a public place.”

This is because in real-life, sex traffickers often use psychological tactics to recruit and control their victims, rather than kidnapping or force. Michigan State Trooper Geno Basanese confirmed this fact, stating that “less than 3 percent of all trafficking victims are kidnapped.”

Basanese also reported that most children who become victims are trafficked by someone they know and trust, like an older friend or boyfriend. He further explained that traffickers normally target children age 12 and 13 because “younger children are more vulnerable, which makes them easier to manipulate.”

Victim Advocate Elisabeth Alquist has worked for years with child victims of sex trafficking and reports that not a single victim she worked with had been kidnapped. Instead, most victims were manipulated by an older male they met online or in person who pretended to be their boyfriend. Over time this “boyfriend” gained the victim’s love and trust before they began trafficking them. Often if a victim tried to leave, the trafficker used threats or physical violence to stop them.

The truth, however scary it may be, is that when we interact with strangers online, we are putting ourselves at risk for developing a trusting relationship with a person who could potentially put our lives or the lives of our children in danger. Children, at very early ages, have access to millions of strangers throughout the world via social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, etc., as well as online video games such as “Fortnite,” “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto,” etc. Traffickers target both girls and boys and anyone with an online presence is at risk of being contacted by these predators.

Caring House has worked with multiple people who have been victims of, or are at risk of sex trafficking, including a teen girl who was communicating with a possible trafficker online. Some common signs that someone may be a victim of sex trafficking are: having an older boyfriend, running away, receiving unexplained new and expensive gifts, tattoos/branding marks, isolation, a drop in academic performance or athletic involvement, a change in peer relationships, depression, self-harm and substance abuse.

If people believe that suspicious-looking strangers in public places are more dangerous than the social media outlets we utilize for entertainment, they are mistaken. The best way to keep you and your children safe is to become educated.

Caring House provides free education to those seeking information for themselves, family members, groups, churches, schools and/or businesses. With the help of a recent financial donation from We Energies, Caring House will host a viewing of the movie “Chosen” from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 12, where viewers can hear stories from real-life victims of sex trafficking. Both adults and children are welcome to attend. Childcare will be provided for young children.

Please contact Caring House staff at 906-774-1337 if you plan to attend. We greatly appreciate the opportunity to educate our community on the issue of sex trafficking.

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