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From one parent to another… Reflections on talking to our children and youth about human trafficking

I am in a position where I provide support to survivors of human trafficking after they have already experienced trauma and exploitation. I am “down river,” in a position to provide assistance and aid after people have fallen upstream. With more awareness, I am hopeful that prevention efforts will make a greater difference in keeping youth safe. 

I am often asked what parents should keep an eye out for with their children or red flags that might alert them to trafficking. From one parent to another, here are some reflections on caring for our youth and intervening before situations get more dire or serious. 

I am honoured to work alongside survivors of human trafficking. My colleague, Michelle, who works as Restorations’ Peer Advocate for our Survivor-Led Peer Support program recently conducted an interview with CTV News. During the interview, she provided these signs of human trafficking that parents should look out for based on her own experiences:

  • Indication that your child has changed social groups at school or in their community
  • Increased isolation or isolating behaviours 
  • Changes in behaviour (e.g. withdrawn, aggressive, mistrustful, etc.)
  • Acquiring an additional cell phone
  • Drastic changes in appearance including increased effort or spending on clothes and accessories, makeup, hair, or nails
  • Problematic behaviour like theft or drug use

In an effort to prevent sexual abuse of children, many parents have “stranger danger” conversations with their young children. But increasingly over the years, our understanding has shifted to recognize that sexual abuse is statistically more likely to occur by a known person rather than a stranger. The same can be said of human trafficking. I often hear from parents that they are concerned that their children will be abducted in public places for the purpose of being trafficked and exploited. Sensationalized media can perpetuate this fear. The reality is that victims are much more likely to be trafficked by someone they know well. In Canada, 91% victims of human trafficking are trafficked by someone they knew while only 9% are trafficked by a stranger. According to Statistics Canada, of those trafficked by someone they knew: 

  • 33% were trafficked by an intimate partner 
  • 23% were trafficked by a casual acquaintance
  • 13% were trafficked by someone with whom they had a criminal relationship
  • 11% were trafficked by those with whom they had a business relationship
  • 6% were trafficked by a friend
  • 3% were trafficked by a family member

I was once told by someone that I was not likely to be trafficked because I come from a stable and loving two parent, Christian household. While there are individuals who are statistically more vulnerable to traffickers because of their identities (Black, Indigenous and women of colour, LGBTQ2S+ youth, etc.), socio-economic backgrounds, or previous histories of abuse and trauma, parents should know that traffickers and pimps are incredibly skilled at identifying and exploiting many vulnerabilities. In particular, a commonality I see among victims is the very human experience of the need to feel loved, valued, accepted, and belonging. Christian parents should not consider their children immune to trafficking, and we can work within the Church to create communities that extend love, support, safety, and belonging. Churches are positioned to help youth be immersed in a community of care and provide opportunities to increase a person’s emotional intelligence, confidence, assurance of their individual worth, and strong sense of identity. These efforts can actively help to prevent human trafficking.

Talking to youth about the realities of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation should be ongoing and evolving based on age and maturity.

Parents should also know that signs and trends relating to trafficking are constantly changing and evolving, especially with the presence of online exploitation. Stay in the know, and - much like with other important conversations with our children about significant topics - recognize that this is not a “one and done” conversation. Talking to youth about the realities of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation should be ongoing and evolving based on age and maturity. In Canada, 24% of victims are under 17 years old. While I recognize the desire to keep upsetting topics away from our children and maintain their innocence for as long as possible, I always tell parents that if we don’t give children safe spaces and safe people to talk to about these issues at a young age, we increase the risk of them learning from unsafe people.When I first started talking to my daughter about her body, privacy and consent, I set the stage for attempting to prevent her from being trafficked or sexually exploited. Those conversations were building blocks for the conversations we continue to have as she grows older, our conversations shifting and growing to incorporate more mature topics. 

As parents, it’s also our job to ensure that our churches have policies in place to protect youth. Safe Church policies and resources can help provide oversight and protection for keeping our kids safe.

Photo by cottonbro studio

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