The Kids

Yes, You Do Need to Be Worried About Child Trafficking

by Leah Campbell

Photograph by Twenty20

You don't have to look far to find pictures of my daughter online. I'm a writer who often uses her image to headline my pieces. I have a public Instagram feed where I routinely show her grinning face. And, on Facebook, my public page often highlights stories of her antics.

She's 4 and hilariously adorable. I'm a proud mama who's in the stage of parenting where my life still kind of revolves around hers. So, it's really not surprising that I share as much about her as I do.

But I don't do any of this naively. When I was in elementary school, my dad spent years working as an undercover cop. By the time I graduated from high school, he was a homicide detective who often shared stories from the job around our dinner table. I know that there are bad people in this world. But I also decided a long time ago that I wasn't going to limit my life because of those people. I'm always analyzing risks and benefits, and with this, I sort of feel like we live in a digital age—everyone else is sharing their images too, so why should I be afraid to share ours?

My recent chat with a private investigator who specializes in recovering missing children might have just changed that stance. Brenda Paradise is licensed in both Texas and Alaska. She's been finding missing people for about eight years. She and I first connected when I interviewed her about a missing boy in my home state of Alaska (whose story did not have a happy ending).

At the time, we talked mostly about that case. But Paradise did say one thing then that always stuck with me: She told me that one in three runaways are approached for pornography, prostitution or by child traffickers within 48 hours of leaving home. Within 48 hours.

It was that stat that made me call her more recently, curious about what she knows, hopeful that she might have tips for how parents can better protect their children.

We've all seen the stories that tend to reach a fever pitch in our feeds—the ones about mamas who swear someone was following them through Target, eyes on their children, ready to swipe their toddler at a moment's notice. I can't be the only one who has felt sympathy for these mamas and their fears, but I've also wondered how often kids are truly being snatched by strangers right under their parent's noses.

Statistically, not often. But the cases Paradise works on aren't usually young children who have been trafficked. Instead, she finds that it's teen runaways who tend to be most at risk.

As she explained to me, she hates that word: "runaway." It implies that just because they left of their own accord, they've remained gone of their own accord as well. And that simply isn't always the case.

Those runaways are all too often approached by child traffickers quite quickly after leaving home. In fact, it may even be that it was a trafficker who convinced them to leave—posing as a peer online and forming a relationship that ultimately ends with the instruction to "Pack a bag and meet me here." Once that happens, recovering those kids can be difficult. Especially when law enforcement views them as "just another runaway."

Paradise got started in this line of business when a friend of her daughter's disappeared seven years ago. Alexandria Lowitzer was 16 years old when she got off the school bus on April 26, 2010. She spoke to her mom on the phone while walking to work to pick up a paycheck from her first job. Only, she never arrived. And she was never found.

Just like that, your child is getting into a car with a stranger. One who knew just enough about you and your life to convince your kid they were legit.

There have never been any confirmed sightings of her, nor any evidence regarding what may have happened to her. Alexandria didn't run away. She was simply taken. And whoever took her made sure she would never be found.

Realizing how easily this could have been her daughter, Paradise began pursuing a change in career. Today, she's worked on more than 500 missing person's cases. She has a 95 percent recovery rate. Of those who have been found, 1 percent were victims of trafficking.

That may not sound like a lot, but keep in mind that most kids (98 percent) who are caught up in child trafficking rings are never found. And of those who are, there can be a lot of misreporting going on, specifically because these kids are often confused about what happened to them and ashamed about the role they may have played in their own abductions.

According to the Ark of Hope for Children, the average age of childhood victims is between 11 and 14 years old. There has been a 7 percent increase in child trafficking victims over the last three years. Of those who are taken, there is an seven-year-average survival span.

As Paradise explained, there's no such thing as "stranger danger" these days. The internet makes kids think they know everyone, purely because of shared friends. Parents don't realize that something as simple as giving their child a game with an online connection opens them up to predators.

Everything has a tracking device. Facebook can tell users where their friends are. Proud parents display bumper stickers with their children's school listed on them, boasting their activities ("My Daughter Is a Cheerleader at Colony High School!"), even sharing their jersey numbers and other identifying information. Predators can easily find more than enough information to take any tween or teen they want.

Here's how it happens: A trafficker might happen upon your child's photo online. With a quick search, they're able to find your name and place of business. Once they have that, they might follow you home from work one day. Then they spend a few days watching your house, getting a feel for your routine, paying attention to what you're posting online. Maybe your child has practice next week and you get stuck late at work. That's when the trafficker approaches your kid and says, "Hey, are you Sally's kid? The one who drives a black Honda Pilot? Your mom has been in an accident. She's OK, but her car is totaled and an ambulance had to take her to the hospital. I saw the whole thing happen. She was really worried about you, and asked me to come get you and bring you there."

Just like that, your child is getting into a car with a stranger. One who knew just enough about you and your life to convince your kid they were legit.

You might think your child would never fall for it, but the truth is that most kids would go into a bit of a panic upon hearing their parent had been in an accident. With the right details, they are easy enough to convince. So, what happens when a child goes missing, either because they chose to run away or because they were tricked?

According to Paradise, after the first 24 hours, the chances of finding them alive go down dramatically. It all depends on how big the trafficking ring is. And yes, these rings are everywhere. Some may keep kids local, while others will try to get them out of the country. We don't always know what happens to the kids after they're taken, because too often they go missing and are never found. These kids can't tell their stories because they've just disappeared.

Based on cases in which recoveries have taken place, though, Brenda explains that sometimes it's a local drug dealer, looking to use your child to pay a debt. Sometimes they are used for drug trafficking or sold to pedophiles. The traffickers work to quickly get these kids addicted to drugs, which makes it easier to manipulate them and traffic them out of state.

If law enforcement gets too close, traffickers are more likely to kill the child and dump the body where it's not likely to ever be found. While Paradise is quick to explain that this happens to teenagers far more often than young children, she says it's never too early to start protecting your kids.

Make your photos private. Be careful about the information you put online. Talk to your kids in an age-appropriate way about strangers and never getting in a car with someone they don't know. You might want to think about using a family password, as well, so that if anyone ever tries to tell your child that you sent them to pick them up, your kid knows to ask for that password first.

As for me, I'm not sure if I'll change my posting habits just yet. But my conversation with Paradise did leave me feeling a little more wary and a lot more invested in starting to talk to my daughter now about how to avoid some of these dangers.

In a perfect world, we would never have to have those conversations. Unfortunately, the world we live in is far from perfect.

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