As the world’s attention is laser-focused on the continuing economic, social and health impacts of COVID-19, another health threat for children is lurking in the shadows of the pandemic. Child trafficking globally impacts an estimated eight million children and youths annually, 5.7 million for labor and another 1.8 million for sex. Many misconceptions surround this criminal enterprise, which is blossoming alongside widely dispersed conspiracy theories. Child trafficking impacts youths, parents, caregivers, educators and health-care providers’ ability to recognize risk factors and potential indicators of victimization. Up to 87% of victims encounter a health-care professional during their trafficking experience, yet their abuse goes unrecognized.
Since the onset of the pandemic, more than 1.5 billion children worldwide are isolated in their homes with only digital devices for companionship and connection. Traffickers are moving from the street to the smartphone to seek opportunity for exploitation of vulnerabilities. In the first month of the COVID shutdown, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported a three-fold increase in reports of online exploitation and abuse, soaring from 300,000 reports to more than 1.1 million, with more than 70% of those reports coming from social media messaging. Operation COVID Chatdown Fresno arrested 190 adult contacts who sought minor victims for sexual encounters in a two-week period from July 20-Aug. 20. More adults are at home with no place to spend expendable income, creating more demand for trafficking.
Parents who are essential or frontline workers have children experiencing loneliness and boredom, craving interaction. Predators exploit this thirst for adventure and attention. Social media connections can be a useful tool for connecting people and maintaining friendships, but they can also exploit youths’ inexperience and immature developmental thinking, placing children in potentially dangerous situations which they are ill-equipped to handle. Because of the loss of school safety nets and fewer caring adults able to engage with children to identify symptoms of concern, exploitation can go more easily undetected.
With the economic fallout of COVID-19, millions of families are impoverished and at risk for extreme poverty, creating vulnerability to trafficking exposure. Adults and youths are looking for food or work, putting them at an increased risk of labor and sex-trafficking exploitation. Well-meaning or ill-intentioned parents may exploit their own children in attempts for survival. While some traffickers use force, coercion, threats or violence to obtain victim compliance, many traffickers seemingly fill a need for family, love and attention, providing material needs such as shelter, food and clothing.
The ever-increasing child-trafficking threat makes it absolutely critical that health-care providers receive trauma-informed, evidence-based, culturally responsive continuing education to respond to trafficking. Parents should seek credible sources of education to protect and equip their children should they encounter an online predator. The time is now to recognize the real and present danger of child trafficking — and not through the lens of an action-adventure, fictionalized version of unfounded conspiracy. The threat is real, the time is now.
Dr. Jessica Peck is a clinical professor at the Baylor University Louise Herrington School of Nursing and a nationally recognized anti-human trafficking advocate, serving as lead medical consultant for Unbound, founding chair for the Alliance for Children in Trafficking and consultant to the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Center.