Not a Number: A Child Trafficking and Exploitation Prevention Curriculum from Love146
In late December an Uber driver named Keith Avila made national news when he reported to police that the three passengers he had just dropped off at a hotel in Elk Grove, California, may have been involved in sex trafficking.
The ride lasted less than 15 minutes. But it was long enough for Avila to identify some warning signs:
Avila observed that the passengers were two adult women traveling with one young girl. The girl, he said, was dressed in “a really short skirt” that he described as “not age appropriate.”
Avila overheard one of the women coaching the girl for a hotel visit with a man, giving her explicit instructions for getting a “donation” … “before you start touching him."
These red flags, Avila said, made him believe that the child was being trafficked. He called the police after dropping them off at the hotel, and the alleged traffickers (and the buyer) were arrested.
Thankfully, Avila was attuned to what was going on around him. He had a general awareness of what constitutes human trafficking, and was motivated to intervene.
While situations as overt as this may not be widespread, human trafficking — the practice of using force, fraud, or coercion to exploit people for labor and commercial sex — is more common than most people realize. The International Labor Organization estimates that more than five million children are victims of forced labor, including commercial sex, worldwide. Though there are no official estimates of the number of child trafficking victims in the United States, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received calls involving more than 1,800 minors in 2016. We believe that these calls reflect only a fraction of the children who may be affected by trafficking and exploitation given the cultural taboos, manipulation, intimidation, and other factors associated with the crime that inhibit reporting.
While some of these children are brought to the United States from other countries, most are born and raised here. They include girls who trust men who turn out to be pimps, boys who find themselves in desperate situations, or children whose vulnerabilities, such as homelessness or rejection due to sexual orientation or gender identification, are taken advantage of.
At Love146, we have worked with survivors of human trafficking and exploitation for nearly 15 years, and through our work we’ve learned how traffickers strategically exploit children’s vulnerabilities. As we listen to survivors, they tell us what happened, and how it happened. They tell us how they were deceived. They’ve told us, “if only I’d known.”
President Barack Obama has declared January National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month — making this an appropriate time to appreciate the role youth-serving professionals play in preventing and addressing trafficking and exploitation. Through our prevention program, we have had the opportunity to engage with deeply committed professionals who work with youth, and we have seen how these relationships make a difference in children’s lives. But we also recognize that the issue of child trafficking and exploitation is especially complex. Though Avila knew what to do in his key moment to take action, sometimes the red flags are not so clear-cut, and sometimes professionals are not equipped with the right information and skills to identify more subtle warning signs. Sometimes it is unclear what they should do if they suspect something is going on.
We also recognize that, as we train professionals to respond to the complexities of this issue, to be truly effective, we must also prepare youth to respond to their own chronic and acute vulnerabilities. We often expect children to innately know how to respond to certain situations, despite concrete evidence that the part of the brain that supports this kind of critical thinking is not fully developed during adolescence. Pediatric neurologist, Frances Jensen states it perfectly when she says, “a teenage brain is just an adult brain with fewer miles on it.” It is important that we provide opportunities for youth to learn and practice new skills in a safe and supportive environment.
This is the core of Not a Number, our human trafficking and exploitation prevention curriculum. Not a Number is designed to provide youth with information and skills in a manner that inspires them to make safe choices when they encounter potentially exploitative situations and utilize healthy support systems that may decrease their vulnerabilities.
Not a Number also provides an opportunity to increase the knowledge and skills of professionals. In order to reach as many youth as possible, we are working to equip professionals who work directly with youth in schools, child welfare and juvenile justice agencies, and other community settings to facilitate Not a Number. These facilitators are then able to guide youth to explore their own vulnerabilities, consider how a trafficker might use those vulnerabilities to take advantage of them, and teach youth how to access support from a variety of sources.
It is not uncommon for a professional to learn more about the issue of human trafficking and exploitation, and immediately think of a current or former client. We often hear professionals echo the phrase that was shared above, “if only I’d known.” At each interaction, we at Love146 are encouraged by those who choose to pursue “knowing.” It is only then that we can work together towards our common mission: the end of child trafficking and exploitation.
To learn more about how to bring Not a Number to your organization, visit love146.org/notanumber/licensing.
The red flags that helped Avila identify a child trafficking situation are among many that professionals use to identify potential exploitative situations. Keep alert for children who:
Frequently run away/AWOL
Have multiple anonymous sex partners
Have a sexual/romantic relationship with older partner(s)
Are unwilling/unable to provide information regarding significant other or sex partner(s)
Have affiliation with confirmed/suspected trafficker and/or trafficked and commercially sexually exploited youth
Are posting/sharing explicit materials online
Have injuries or tattoos that they are reluctant to explain
Possess items (e.g., money, cell phone) or have a noticeable change in dress, hair, or nails without explainable source of income
Are detached or (suddenly) isolated from a majority of family members and friends
Are unable to give answers about their schedules or living and work locations/conditions
Are excessively monitored or controlled
Although all youth at risk of exploitation, there are specific subpopulations that are particularly vulnerable. Risk factors include:
History of trauma
Member of marginalized group (e.g., LGBTQ, immigrant)
Personal or family substance abuse
Low emotional attachment to caregivers
Incarcerated or deceased family member
Peers in “the life”
Lack of social supports
High levels of family disruption
To learn more, visit love146.org/professionals.
Founded in 2002, Love146 is an international human rights organization working to end child trafficking and exploitation through survivor care and prevention. We serve children from our offices in Asia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The trafficking and exploitation of children is one of the darkest stories and most severe human rights abuses imaginable. But for us, the hope of ending it is a reality. Love146 is helping grow the movement to end child trafficking while providing effective, thoughtful solutions. We believe in the power of love and its ability to effect sustainable change. Love is the foundation of our motivation.
The views, information and opinions expressed herein are those of the author; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Council on Accreditation (COA). COA invites guest authors to contribute to the COA blog due to COA's confidence in their knowledge on the subject matter and their expertise in their chosen field.