Once upon a time, Jeff, Kelli, and I sat down with a guy who started trying to poke around about the partnerships we have with StreetLightUSA and the Phoenix Dream Center and the importance of human trafficking. He dove into his past as a single father who cared so much about his only daughter. He kept talking about how he sent his daughter to private Catholic schools for her entire elementary, middle, and high school life. He's a great daddy, right?!
Then suddenly he said, "But I never heard any cases of sex or human trafficking happening to someone there [in any of the schools]. Isn't that something that just happens more to people in other communities?"
Think about it: what did he mean by other?
Low income families. Single parents with multiple kids. Children attending public schools. Minorities. Families who rely on welfare. People who suffer from alcoholism or narcotics. Obviously the other is not a white man with a shaved face, short hair, in a fancy suit, who can afford to send his daughter to any school he wants, even a fancy private one.
But I digress. What's more important is that he isn't the only one around who believes that human trafficking only happens to the 'others'.
Look at this map. It shows the locations of trafficking in the United States in 2019 (thank you Palantir):
Phew. Looks like if you live in Alaska or Wyoming, you're probably good.
Wrong. According to the company that operates the US National Human Trafficking Hotline, "Human trafficking is notoriously underreported."
What is more likely? That the guy truly had a community of parents and kids through 18 years of his daughter's upbringing that was completely free from this crime? Or just that he never heard about it because of his privilege? I think you catch my drift.
Trafficking is something that affects everyone in every community. It's not just an issue that happens 'over there' or something that goes on in places you usually don't go.
There are things that increase the risk. Unstable living situations, domestic violence, running away from home, poverty, drugs, alcohol abuse, LGBTQ+; those all correlate to a higher risk of falling victim to trafficking. But that's because we marginalize those people and make them vulnerable, and traffickers are experts at luring in and taking advantage of the vulnerable.
Plus, the more well off, the bigger your reputation. And the more adept you become at keeping the dirty laundry hidden to protect that reputation.
Let's see how this could happen in a simple little story.
(Don't worry. These are all AI-generated faces just for a quick disclaimer.)
Daniel was born 11 years ago. He is an only child, and his parents both work. His Dad has a Master's Degree and works for a big consulting company as an analyst. His Mom is a High School Teacher and an Adjunct Professor. She has a Master's Degree and is currently finishing up her Ph.D.
When Daniel's mom went into labor 11 years ago, she was coming back from her last parent-teacher conference for that day. Right when she walked in the door, she went into labor and immediately called her husband. He was already on his way home but the traffic was horrible.
He hung up the phone and frantically called his neighbor to come over and take her to the hospital. He took the first exit from the freeway and zoomed down side streets to try and make it. He got to the hospital just as she started to push. They both got to see Daniel for the first time together, but that was something that would become harder and harder to maintain as the years drew on.
As a high-achieving power couple, they obviously care a lot about Daniel's education. They researched hundreds of local schools before deciding on putting him in a Montessori preschool. When he started Kindergarten, they were more than willing to drive 40 minutes out of the way to take him to school every day because of the great programs there. Daniel cares a lot about pleasing Mom and Dad. They've achieved so much with their degrees and careers that he doesn't want to be a disappointment. He's never seen anything but an A on his report card.
Now that he's 10 years old, more and more kids at school have cell phones. They have little inside jokes that they laugh about or trending viral posts that they talk about. Daniel feels a little left out because he has no idea what those things mean. So that night when he gets home, he decides to ask for a phone.
Daniel's Mom was very surprised by her son's question. She had never thought about how hard it would be for him to not have a phone and she felt bad that she hadn't even noticed the situation until now. "I just want you to know that having a cell phone isn't everything," she said as they sat on the sofa together, "and if you're feeling left out because of not having one then we'll get you one."
So they did. That weekend they went to the store, picked out a phone, and added him to the family plan. The $85 per month that this added to their bill wasn't a big stretch at all. It was easy to afford that thinking about how much easier it would be to contact him, and how much easier it would be to keep track of him.
After that first weekend and the first night that he used his phone, he came home with a surprising story. "I met my best friend today," he said excitedly. It turned out that she had the exact same phone model as Daniel, just in pink instead of blue. Daniel was a pretty unique little kid. He skipped 2 grades after Kindergarten because of his intelligence. That made Mom and Dad super proud that he was leveling up even faster than they did when they were younger. But he was always so much younger than everyone else in his grades. It made it pretty difficult for him to make any friends at school or be part of a group. Being an 11-year-old 7th grader and seeing everyone else using social media so much made the loneliness even worse. That's why it made him so happy when this beautiful girl reached out on Instagram. She looked so cute and had such a beautiful smile. He commented on one of her pictures and right when he got done typing the comment, she messaged him saying that they should be friends since they both have iPhones.
Mom replied to Daniel, "I'm glad you met your friend, but remember to stay safe online. There are some things that come up unexpectedly."
"Mom, come on, it's Instagram. It's not like we're going on Facebook or Snapchat or anything," Daniel smiled as he hugged his mom goodbye as she left to go give a lecture.
Daniel immediately sent another message to the girl asking how old she was. "13," she said. Daniel paused for a second before writing back, "Well, I'm only 11 so we can't hang out anytime soon."
"Oh that's cool!" she responded right away. "Don't sweat. I friended you because you are so cute. 👉👈"
"Only simps would think these are compliments," Daniel thought to himself. But he felt his heart start pounding when he looked at her profile picture. He couldn't help himself from how it made him feel.
For the next few months, she would message Daniel every day. He liked the attention so much. He would always have a reply for her and they would start sending messages to each other every day until one day she wrote, "I feel so close to you it's crazy." She told him that she was starting to develop feelings for him and that he made her life better just by being himself. That was the first time that Daniel ever really thought about a girl in a romantic way.
And he wasn't the only one with feelings. She told Daniel, "I've been praying for so long to find someone who I have real chemistry with, and now I have it! And it's you!"
"That sounds great," Daniel replied as his heart started racing. She was about to turn 14 now, and she said she had learned about some things that couples do. "You're my boyfriend now, right?" she asked. Daniel couldn't believe what he just read. There was absolutely no way that this extremely hot girl would love his nerdy young self. He asked a bunch of questions trying to poke holes if she really felt that for him. She always responded with validation, "I have no doubts. I know it's really soon, but I can't help my feelings."
Dad and Mom saw Daniel on his phone a lot. They tried to get involved and ask questions because he always spent so much time face down talking to that girl. "What are you two talking about?" Dad asked.
"Oh, she's just my friend," Daniel replied casually.
They created their own account so they could follow both of them. After a while, they felt a little worried because they never saw anything about her parents. When they had asked Daniel to get some more information from her, she sent some stuff. But it was impossible to validate since she lived in a different state. The more they pressed, the more he kept saying vague things. It made them very uneasy, but they believed him because he was always such a good kid.
Daniel kept getting straight A's. Mom and Dad were already so busy, so the fact that he was so happy and occupied with his friend helped. Dad could focus on decompressing after his stressful day. And Mom could focus on compiling the research she needed for her dissertation.
"Guess what?! I'm going to be in town for Valentines!" she said. She wanted to come see Daniel before she left, but her parents wouldn't let her. "Can you please meet me somewhere?" she begged.
"I don't know. My parents don't really like that we talk this much, so they would probably never let me do that," Daniel said.
"Well I'm almost 14 now! So you don't even need to tell them. You can just say that we met at the mall!" she responded.
Daniel didn't want to risk getting in trouble for lying, but he thought that there might not be another chance to meet her.
"Can I go to the mall with my friends?" he asked.
"Hmm. That's weird." dad thought. Daniel didn't usually ask if he could go out with friends when he had so much schoolwork. Dad asked him who the friend was that wanted to meet him at the mall.
"Oh, just some people from my class. They are going together after school on Friday. Don't worry, Micah's Mom is going to drop us off there."
Daniel wasn't lying. They really were going to the mall together in Micah's Mom's van.
"Yay! I can't wait to see you! " she said. Daniel was surprised that his parents let him go, but he felt really happy that they did. "I'm going to give you a real kiss finally!" she said. Daniel couldn't stop thinking about it.
When the day finally came, he met Micah and two other friends outside after school.
When he got to the mall Daniel said, "OK dude, so I will see you later! Remember, if they ask, we were together the whole time. I'll meet you at the same door at 6."
Daniel's heart was racing as he walked toward the food court. She had told him that her parents were so controlling that she would have to have them there to meet him. "At least they are okay with her coming to the mall to meet me," he thought. "I wish my parents would do that."
As Daniel approached, she was there. She looked even prettier than her pictures. When they hugged, she held him for a long time before letting go and starting to introduce him to her parents. He felt so embarrassed because he was so nervous and his heart was racing. "I brought a gift for you! " she said, "it's in the car because I didn't want to carry it around this whole time."
Daniel wasn't even thinking about anything except how he felt actually being there. She was the one person who he felt understood him. The one person who accepted him for who he truly was, and didn't care about his quirks.
But he didn't know that she was the bait.
See, trafficking isn't something that happens just to people out there. It isn't violence from some stranger. Predators use social media to recruit vulnerable victims. And a lot of the time it involves people who the victims know.
In this story, those were her real parents. They were trafficking their own daughter; using her as bait to lure other children and also forcing her to perform sex acts on other men. She had nowhere else to go and no way to escape, so it was easy for her parents to take pictures of her and use them to develop an intimate relationship with Daniel through Instagram.
This is an issue that is bigger than one demographic or social class. It's something that spans the entire globe and involves predators and "clients" who have high social status.
The only way that we have a chance is to learn to see the signs and step in when we see them. Trying to limit and control makes children feel angry and even could ruin close relationships like Daniel had with his Mom and Dad. When you give your kids access to social media, do it with your eyes wide open. It will take a lot of work, but you will be glad that you took extra steps to cement your bond while still protecting your child.
The human trafficking industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the world, and it’s affecting more than just those who are poor. Social media like Instagram and Facebook (oops...I mean Meta :P) has made it easier for people to recruit victims by creating fake profiles with false information. This isn’t a problem we want our kids exposed to at such an early age, so start having these conversations now before your child becomes vulnerable. And don’t think blocking them from social media will work either because you may find yourself trying to explain why when they get older and rebel against you or go behind your back anyway. Once you get to the point where you are going to give them access, make sure you figure out a way that you can completely see everything that is happening without having to steal away their phone every night.
P.S. I know a great phone that makes that possible. Its name rhymes with rock’a fun…
If you or someone you know is experiencing a trafficking crisis, text "HELP" or "INFO" to 233733.