Child Trafficking: Know the Signs and How to Help

girl covering her face

Child sex trafficking may sound like something you don’t need to worry about, but no child is immune. Learn what signs to look for and what to do if you see something suspicious.

Child sex trafficking is the sexual abuse of a child in exchange for something of value—with or without a third party, such as a trafficker or “pimp.” Most children who are trafficked know and trust the person who exploits them.

Here are a few examples of ways children are lured into being trafficked:

  • A child believes they are in a romantic relationship, and their “partner” convinces them to engage in sexual acts with “friends” to help pay for gas, rent, etc.
  • A child receives a message on social media complimenting them and offering them money to submit risque photos for a modeling job.
  • A child is invited to attend a party to “make quick money.”

It’s never the child’s fault when they are taken advantage of, but exploiters tend to seek out victims with vulnerabilities (or risk factors). While all children are at risk, the more vulnerabilities a child has, the easier it is for an exploiter or trafficker to take advantage of them.

Examples of different vulnerabilities include:

  • Young age
  • Low self-esteem
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Substance use
  • Prior abuse
  • Involvement in child welfare system
  • Desire for attention or independence
  • More time spent on the internet or social media

Parents and caregivers:

  • Watch out for anyone who doesn’t respect your child’s boundaries or pushes your child to engage in risky behaviors.
  • Watch out for older peers or adults trying to build a relationship with your child by messaging them or spending time alone with them.
  • Monitor your child’s social media use.
  • Teach your child body safety.
  • Help your child identify safe adults they can reach out to whenever they can’t (or won’t) talk to you.

Unfortunately, children are at risk for violence or trafficking even under “normal” circumstances. Add a pandemic or another crisis into the mix—with people losing their jobs and financial stability, child care, support systems, health or even loved ones—and the existing risks and vulnerabilities for children only intensify.

  • Children may be spending more time alone, without supervision, allowing for more opportunities to engage in risky behavior.
  • Children may not be seeing the educators and healthcare professionals who can provide them with resources or report any concerns to authorities.
  • Children may be forced to help make ends meet.

If your child, or a child you know, suddenly shows any of the following red flags, it could be a sign of human trafficking:

  • Showing up with belongings or items they would not normally be able to afford on their own (e.g., new clothes, cell phone, etc.)
  • Being secretive about who they are spending time with
  • Sleeping a lot in school or during the day
  • Talking about working late shifts or being unable to take breaks or leave their “jobs”
  • Talking about how they cannot leave a work situation out of fear, due to debt, etc.
  • Increased isolation from a previous friend group
  • Spending more time with an older boyfriend/girlfriend or with a new, riskier friend group
  • Unexplained changes in behavior or attitude (increased mood swings, aggressive behavior, etc.)
  • Running away from home, not coming home overnight
  • New or increased use of drugs or alcohol
  • Unexplained change in interest in activities they would regularly enjoy or attend (e.g., team sports, attending school-related events, etc.)

Be a safe, trusted adult for the children in your life—whether that’s children in your own home or other children in your community.

  • Engage in open and honest communication and remain nonjudgmental when kids share their thoughts and feelings. A child may not share information with you if they think they are going to be judged for their behavior.
  • Remind kids that you are always a safe person to talk to. Let kids know they won’t be in trouble if they come to you when they are afraid or because someone else is pressuring them to do something they don’t want to do. Fear of punishment may keep kids or teens from talking to their parents in any situation.
  • Have proactive conversations about safety planning to help kids and teens feel more prepared when they find themselves in risky situations.
  • Openly discuss safe behaviors online and in real life. Consider setting up a family media contract where everyone in the house follows the same rules, such as no phone at the dinner table, no computer time after 9 p.m. or no screens in the bedroom.
  • Remind kids that, just like they shouldn’t go with a stranger at the mall, they shouldn’t be “friends” with strangers online, either—even if they appear to be close to their age.
  • Try to familiarize yourself with the social media and internet platforms your children use, and make sure you know all their usernames and passwords for safety. Using the internet or a cellphone is a privilege, not a right.

With teens and young adults, it can be particularly challenging to figure out what is truly going on. If you notice any of these signs or have any concerns about your child’s wellbeing, do not hesitate to seek professional help.

If you suspect that a child you know has been trafficked or exploited, contact Georgia’s CSEC Response Team at 1-866-ENDHTGA (1-866-363-4842).

If you are interested in learning more from our team at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Stephanie V. Blank Center for Safe and Healthy Children, sign up for one of many training events.