By Deanna Johnson Cauthen
Deanna Cauthen is as a contributing writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Decatur Dispatch and Tucker Times news magazines, publications of Hometown Newspapers.
Recently, while shopping at our local supermarket, my daughter Adrianna was approached by a young, attractive, African-American woman wearing sunglasses, in the produce department,. I was several feet away when I looked over and noticed the uncomfortable expression on my daughter’s face, so I stopped what I was doing and walked over to her.
I told the woman that I was Adrianna’s mother and asked her what she needed. At that point, she immediately took off without giving me an answer. Surprised, I turned to my daughter and asked her what the woman wanted. She told me that the woman asked her age and said that she would like to get to know her better. She also asked her if she had a family and whether or not she live with them.
It took me a few minutes to process what had just happened, but when I did, my heart was gripped with fear because everything about the transaction pointed to sex trafficking. I was shocked and horrified.
Never in a million years could I have imagined that my daughter would come face to face with a sexual predator. Even more surprising was that the person who approached her was a woman. We proceeded to the front of the store and reported the incident to the manager and then to the police.
What exactly is sex trafficking? Sex trafficking occurs when someone uses threats, violence or other forms of coercion to convince children and even some adults to participate in sex acts against their will.
Sex trafficking is a big business and it thrives because there is a serious demand. It’s happening not only in the United States, but globally. According to numbers released by the National Human Research Trafficking Resource Center, human trafficking produced $150 billion in revenue worldwide.
With these facts in mind, it’s imperative that we as parents, and the community at large, educate ourselves on what things what can be done to combat this problem. Although this is by no means a conclusive list, here are six things we can do to protect our own children and the other children in the community.
- Take time to connect with your children.
As parents, sometimes we get caught up with our own problems and become emotionally unavailable to our children, many times without meaning to do so. We need to, however, take deliberate actions to connect with our children on a daily basis.
You’ve probably heard people say that quality time is more important than quantity, but that’s not true. Kids need both quantity and quality time. This means talking with them and asking open-ended questions and not just talking at them and barking out orders.
Sexual predators are looking for children who feel disconnected and who lack supportive families. It’s not enough to say ‘I love you’. Your kids need to feel and know that you are there for them.
- Set boundaries and model healthy behavior.
Your children are watching how you handle problems and interact with others. A few months ago, I was in a store with my daughter when a young man became agitated with me and started exhibiting threatening behavior. I immediately went and found a manager and told him about the situation. I asked him to walk me and my daughter to our car, which he did, and he stayed with us until we drove away.
The lesson my daughter learned that day was when you need help, ask for it. You don’t have to go it alone. She also learned that it was important to trust your gut and honor your own senses. They need to know that if they feel uncomfortable, they have the right to protect themselves, but they can only do that if they see that kind of behavior being modeled at home.
- Stay informed and alert.
When I posted the incident that happened in the store on Facebook, there were several of my friends who did not realize that sex trafficking was such a big problem. This tells me means that we, as a community, have some catching up to do when it comes to getting informed about this issue.
It’s worth mentioning again that the sexual predator that approached my daughter was not some big, scary man, but a charming, attractive, young woman. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2016 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, about four in 10 human traffickers throughout the globe are female, dispelling the general perception that sex trafficking is a male-dominated industry.
Becky McDonald, the founder of the Michigan-based nonprofit Women At Risk International, recently spoke to an audience at the World Affairs Council of Palm Beach about sex trafficking. “The face of trafficking, often the actual trafficker who is doing the sale of that person against their will, is a female”, said McDonald.
Sex trafficking can take place through online contact as well, so pay close attention to your children’s internet accessible devices. Do periodic, random cell phone and tablet checks and monitor other internet activities.
With the internet literally at our fingertips, we can arm ourselves with the information we need and become a part of the solution to this problem. Understanding the nature of sex trafficking and knowing what to look for, can not only help your child, but other children in the community, as well. The FAIR Girls Organization and the US Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign are two of many good online resources.
- Don’t assume that your child is immune from this type of activity.
As I mentioned previously, sex traffickers are looking for children who are lonely, isolated, depressed and who have a weak family structure, but don’t assume that because your child comes from “a good home” that they are not susceptible. Depending on what’s going on in the home at the current time, along with other factors like school and friendships, your child’s emotional state may be more fragile than you think.
Although I was almost sure that my daughter would never have willingly gone with this woman, I used the situation as a time to take her emotional temperature. I asked her how she felt about the incident that had just happened and about other things going on in her life to make sure that I wasn’t missing anything.
- Help them develop a plan of action to use if they’re confronted by a predator.
When we got home, my daughter, husband, and I talked about the experience at the store. First, we reassured her that she did nothing wrong and that what happened wasn’t her fault in any way. Secondly, we discussed a plan of action in case this situation or something similar were to happen again. Below are some specific courses of actions we advised her to take.
- Walk away from the person. Remember, you don’t owe a stranger anything and you don’t have to be polite to a person who you think is dangerous.
- If they persist, look them in the eye and firmly say, ‘I am not interested’ and continue to walk away and distance yourself from them. Don’t engage them in a conversation or give out any personal information.
- If you are in a store or another place of business, get help. Ask for a manager or proceed to a security guard or police officer and notify them about the situation.
- Stay with a responsible adult until help arrives.
- Call or tell your parent or guardian about the incident so that they can make an official report with the local authorities.
- Provide support for at-risk kids in your neighborhood during the summer break. Unfortunately, summertime is a prime time when sexual predators are looking to recruit. They know that children are out of school which gives them more access. Additionally, there are many parents who cannot afford proper childcare and who leave children home alone with nothing to do and little supervision. These kids are particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking.
If you don’t already do this, talk with your neighbors and get to know them. Form a network to help those parents who might not otherwise be able to afford childcare. If you can afford it, sponsor a child for a week or two of daycare or offer to take turns watching each other’s kids.
Look for the warning signs of child sex trafficking including new tattoos (pimps use this as a way to brand victims), is withdrawn, depressed, or distracted, and signs of physical abuse such as burn marks, bruises or cuts. You can visit the Shared Hope International website for a more comprehensive list of warning signs. As the ancient, African proverb says, “Remember, it takes a village to raise a child”.