It is likely that you know someone who has been the victim of sex trafficking or is at risk, and that person could well be a child from Riverside County — perhaps a child you know or one who’s close to you. How would you know?
As an analyst for the Commercially Sexually Exploited Children (CSEC) program through Riverside County’s Department of Public Social Services, one of my primary roles is to educate the public about a crime that brings lifelong harm to children here in our own communities.
Each month, about 160 girls and boys who are at risk or have already been trafficked are cared for in Riverside County’s CSEC program. We provide these children with dedicated homes where a specially trained resource parent offers stability and access to trauma-informed resources to help them heal. Unfortunately, there is always a need for more of these homes.
The county also connects these youth with counseling, resources and programs specializing in human trafficking through our community partners — Resilient Brave Youth, Rebirth Homes and Run to Rescue.
Every child is vulnerable to human trafficking, but some are at greater risk: those who were sexually abused; those who were in the child welfare system before age 5; LGBTQIA+ youth; runaways; and children from poverty-stricken families.
Add to that COVID-19 lockdowns and increased isolation, coupled with digital devices and connectivity, and predators have even easier access to kids they can target and groom on apps such as Instagram, TikTok and many others that pop up overnight.
Predators are skilled at building relationships and determining the level of engagement and supervision at home. They are persuasive and can con their victims to do more, like sending nude pictures or videos, and eventually meeting in person.
By then, it’s hard for children to extricate themselves because of the predator’s threat to out them to their families.
Parents, the community and lawmakers play an important role in halting sex trafficking.
The landmark Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000 made human trafficking a federal crime, established a multi-agency strategy and funding to combat the problem, and established the National Human Trafficking Hotline, humantraffickinghotline.org, at 888-373-7888.
While there are no comprehensive statistics on sex trafficking, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received a total of 51,667 substantive phone calls, texts, webchats, emails, and online tips regarding all forms of trafficking in 2020.
It’s important to dispel the myth that exploited children have been kidnapped and forced into sex trafficking. In reality, the victims are more likely to either live with parents who are unaware of their situation or be victimized by a familial connection.
As part of Human Trafficking Awareness Month in January, the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services recently held its 4th annual CSEC Conference. The free event, attended by hundreds of parents, caregivers and community members, is one of the ways we teach the public about prevention of child sex trafficking.
The greatest weapons for combatting this scourge are awareness, education and training. We must minimize the risk by teaching children online safety, monitoring their social media, and modeling what healthy relationships look like.
Because sex trafficking does not discriminate by age, race, gender or socio-economic status. Every child could be at risk — even yours.
Krystal Elliott is an analyst for the Commercially Sexually Exploited Children program for the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services.