By Vanessa West
Human traffickers are marking potential targets’ cars with cryptic series of letters and numbers, placing zip ties on door handles, and leaving roses on windshields. Furniture companies are shipping abducted children in armoires. A friend of a friend of a friend was followed through a store. A strange woman tried to snatch an infant from a car seat. A friend of a friend of a friend was tailed as she drove down a dark road. Everywhere, there are strangers ready to snatch children from the safety of their parent’s arms. The Child Catcher is real, and he or she is waiting at the end of the aisle in Target, in a dark parking lot, watching you. Parents and children alike are encouraged to carry weapons and use them to prevent brazen abductions in broad daylight. If a child is taken, they will be held against their will and forced to perform any number of vile acts. Not even the suburbs are safe. In fact, it is the suburbs in which many of these crimes take place. The victims are good girls.
These stories are shared and reposted repeatedly on social media, in various forms, reaching a massive audience. The problem is none of the scenarios described have basis in fact. They are myths for the digital age. Razor blades in apples and a maniac with a hook have been replaced by the new millennium’s version of the chain letter: the share button. The propagation of human trafficking myths on the internet not only spreads falsehoods and renders them credible, but swings attention away from the truth. If one is focused on a stranger in a department store, they are overlooking the threat that is most often much, much closer to home.
Along with viral social media output, the advent of Q-Anon, a baseless conspiracy theory movement, has pushed myths about human trafficking into the mainstream. Among Q’s allegations is the existence of a vast cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic pedophiles who procure children for sacrifice, murder, and all manner of sexual abuse. Followers of the theory adopted the hashtag #savethechildren, borrowing the name of an actual nonprofit that has worked since 1919 to improve the lives of children worldwide. While trafficking by strangers does occur, it is not the boogeyman of viral social media. The reality is that victims are overwhelmingly more likely to be trafficked by someone they know and trust. We are at exponentially greater risk of being trafficked by a trusted friend, family member, pastor or coach than we are by a stranger, and we are all vulnerable.
Rapha International is a Joplin, Missouri organization that works to mitigate this risk before trafficking occurs and offers a safe haven for survivors. Aftercare director Robin Blair, Ph.D, explained that Rapha provides prevention for the vulnerable, care for survivors, and engagement for the community at large using a multi-faceted approach. The organization works to educate the community on the facts of trafficking, provides training for businesses, schools, and local aid agencies, and works to identify potential trafficking or trafficking that is already occurring. “Trafficking is a crime of vulnerability: someone exploits another person’s vulnerabilities,” Blair said in an interview. “Like most sexual trauma, this exploitation tends to happen through relationships, from people we know, not from strangers.”
While Rapha has aftercare facilities in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean, on a local level they provide women and girls who have suffered sexual trauma by offering safe housing, clothing, food, medical care, and mental health counseling, which are often difficult if not impossible to obtain otherwise. Survivors are also able to receive education and job training to not only enable them to navigate life, but to empower them to break the hold traffickers often have. Social services and legal support are also provided.
These services are not only available to survivors, but to those at risk of being trafficked. As Blair pointed out, all of us are at risk on some level, because we are all humans with vulnerabilities that can be exploited. At particularly high risk are social groups that have historically, and sometimes systematically, been marginalized. This includes young girls in the foster care system, the disabled, women and girls of color, immigrants, runaways, and LBTQI young people. Traffickers are skilled at singling out those who are most at risk. Grooming, in which the trafficker builds an emotional connection with the intended target, can easily be mistaken for friendship and a helping hand. As the relationship progresses, the victim is manipulated into relying solely on their abuser. Affection, attention, even food and a place to stay, are all used by traffickers to cement their victims’ dependence. Rapha International works within the community to identify at risk youth, in order to arm potential victims with the skills needed to prevent them from being trafficked in the first place. “We aim to be a community that comes alongside hurting kids before traffickers have a chance to,” Blair said. “When people ask me what they can do to prevent trafficking in our community, I tell them to invest in the youth in our community, especially the more vulnerable children around us.”
Public misconceptions about sex work help fuel the ease in which traffickers operate. Traffickers and their victims are not easily identifiable, as television and film would have you believe. They purposefully stay under the radar, enabling them to operate freely. Often, prostitution is seen as a so-called victimless crime, in which sex is a business transaction. The reality is that the majority of prostitutes are not operating under their own will. In fact, three quarters of them will be raped, and nearly all of them will be physically assaulted. In places where prostitution has been legalized, there is a greater demand for, most often, women and girls to meet the demand.
In order to combat trafficking, society much shed its reliance on stereotypes and fear mongering and open its arms to the most endangered persons. “Trafficking is a crime of vulnerability: someone exploits another person’s vulnerabilities,” Blair explained. “Like most sexual trauma, this exploitation tends to happen through relationships, from people we know, not from strangers.” Social media is often the starting point for traffickers and their victims and is where grooming takes place. “If we expect trafficking to only ever present as a sensational story, we will miss the majority of cases, even those that are right in front of us.
What are some common myths about sex/human trafficking? How does Rapha House combat these myths? (We used to be Rapha House but changed to Rapha International in 2019 to reflect our growing services.)
Rapha International takes a three pronged approach to combatting sex trafficking: Prevention for the vulnerable, Aftercare for survivors, and Engagement for everyone. Part of our Engagement work is providing education to the communities in which we operate, including right here in the Four State Area. We provide education and training opportunities to businesses, schools, and community and faith-based organizations, focusing on what trafficking is and what it isn’t. One of the biggest myths is that sex trafficking is about stranger danger or a “snatch and grab” scenario. While those cases do exist, they are rare. In reality, trafficking is a crime of vulnerability: someone exploits another person’s vulnerabilities. Like most sexual trauma, this exploitation tends to happen through relationships, from people we know, not from strangers. Additionally, these relationships are often initiated and groomed online, typically through social media sites. We believe people are better equipped to identify and respond to potential victims of trafficking when they know what to look for. If we expect trafficking to only ever present as a sensational story, we will miss the majority of cases, even those that are right in front of us.
What does Rapha House do to empower women and girls who are survivors?
We have four aftercare facilities across Cambodia, Thailand, and Haiti. We provide intensive, specialized services to female minors, including meeting basic safety and care needs (shelter, food, clothing, and security); providing counseling and medical treatment; creating and implementing personalized education and vocational training plans; and providing social work and legal advocacy for the pursuit of justice.
Locally, we offer counseling services at the Rapha Hope and Healing Center to provide help for child and adult survivors of trauma, sexual exploitation, and trafficking.
Finally, we offer Prevention programs in all of our countries of service that are aimed at supporting vulnerable populations to reduce their risks of trafficking.
What is the biggest obstacle to success for those who have been trafficked?
For many, the psychological and emotional manipulation that has taken place over years of grooming and abuse make it difficult for survivors to trust others or themselves. It takes a patient, supportive community to see them through exiting the life, and often requires wrap-around services to help them fully address the trauma they have endured. (See https://thelifestory.org/ to gain more understanding of this process). Practically, it takes a lot of funding and people power to provide these services, so organizations are in need of community and private partnerships. (See https://rapha.org/ways-to-give/aftercare-partner to become an Aftercare Partner with Rapha).
What do you wish the public knew about trafficking?
While we are all at risk for trafficking on some level simply because we are humans with vulnerabilities that can be exploited, some populations are especially at risk. These groups include kids in the foster care system, youth who identify as LGBTQ, youth who have disabilities, and girls of color. Traffickers are skilled at identifying youth who have already experienced systematic oppression for one reason or another; they take advantage of these vulnerable populations by grooming them. Grooming looks like befriending and helping, but with a manipulative agenda. We aim to be a community that comes alongside hurting kids before traffickers have a chance to. When people ask me what they can do to prevent trafficking in our community, I tell them to invest in the youth in our community, especially the more vulnerable children around us.