While it’s true that human trafficking can happen to anyone, the reality is that it’s much more likely to happen to people with a history of hardship. In the case of child sex trafficking, as the human rights organization Love146 puts it, these crimes are “rarely the first thing to go wrong in a child’s life.”
Physical abuse, neglect, poverty and homelessness are all factors that could make a child more susceptible to sex trafficking. These experiences are common among children in foster care as well, which is why being in the child welfare system is itself a risk factor. Traffickers prey upon such vulnerabilities, compounding the layers of abuse.
All foster parents need to be aware of how and why child sex trafficking happens, and how to spot the warning signs. If you’re a foster parent in Texas, here are six ways you can help protect the children in your care.
1. Tune in to their feelings.
This tip is perhaps the simplest, and arguably the most important. Perpetrators gain trust and power by filling a void in a child’s life, whether it’s food, housing or simply attention. Connecting emotionally with your child will help them feel loved and secure, so they will be less likely to seek that attention elsewhere—and potentially fall into the wrong hands.
So ask how your child is doing and listen closely to the response. It is normal for any child in foster care to miss their birth family and to feel anxious about the changes in their life. Encourage them to talk about their feelings of loss, sadness or loneliness. If you sense that your child is struggling, talk with their case worker about ways to support them.
2. Monitor their screen time.
Increasingly, young victims of sex trafficking are being recruited online. Social media, video games, message boards and apps all give strangers direct access to each other—and kids can’t always tell if they are talking with a peer or an adult.
That’s why you need to be extra cautious about how your children use smartphones, gaming consoles and other devices. Default privacy settings may not be enough, so take time to ensure your kids can only communicate with family members and close friends.
If your child uses social media, mark their accounts as private and “friend/follow” them so you can see all their activity. Also remind them to think twice about what they share online, as anything they post should be considered permanent.
Turn off GPS tracking (a.k.a., location services) for gaming apps, Snapchat and other social media. Limit the feature to only the apps that really need it, such as “Find My iPhone.”
Time limits and shared passwords are other important tools for keeping kids safe online. You may also consider installing a parental monitoring software on your child’s devices; Bark is one example. And be aware that children and teens may get their hands on “burner phones” to escape detection—so be on the lookout for those as well. Check out more online safety tips for kids from Love146.
3. Model healthy relationships.
A child in foster care may not have had many role models in their life, up until now. You want them to place their trust in the right people, not in those who may exploit or manipulate them. That starts with helping them realize they are worthy of love and respect.
As a foster parent, you can be this role model. You’re already providing a loving, stable home, which is a great start. Practice kindness, patience and honesty with your child and other members of the family. By learning what healthy relationships look like, children in foster care will develop self-respect and be more likely to resist relationships with people who don’t meet those criteria.
4. Know their friends.
Friends may come and go—that’s part of growing up. But when a new buddy or bestie appears on the scene, take time to get to know them. The same goes for new romantic interests, if your teen is old enough to date.
Meet your child’s friends in person and introduce yourself to their parents. The first few times they get together, let it be in your home or a public place where you can keep a watchful eye. By the same token, be cautious of anyone new who enters your child’s life suddenly and intensely, as that could be a sign that they’re up to something else.
5. Notice what’s new.
Is your teen huddled over a new smartphone, iPad or other treasured possession? Do they suddenly have extra funds to spend on Amazon or the Apple Store?
Sex traffickers often give their victims money or high-ticket gifts as part of the grooming process. Other common gifts include beauty care and accessories—think haircuts, manicures and jewelry.
If you notice a new possession or change in your child’s appearance, and you didn’t purchase that item, ask where it came from. If your child says their birth parent bought it for them, double-check that this is true, either directly or through your child’s case worker.
6. Stay vigilant—and stay the course.
Naturally, all parents want to believe the best of their children. So trust what they tell you, but also verify the information. That goes for who they spend time with, where they’re headed, what they are doing online and more. Set boundaries, use your best judgment and always be a little skeptical of what your kids are up to. If children are spending less and less time with family and isolating themselves in their room, it could be a sign that something’s up.
You may feel like you’re being a “helicopter parent” at times, and your child may roll their eyes in response. But this due diligence is part of all parenting. It’s worth it to keep children in foster care safe from people with bad intentions—and to break the cycle of child abuse.
And remember you are not alone: Your child’s entire welfare team at Upbring is by your side, keeping their eyes out for the same warning signs.
To learn more about preventing and spotting child sex trafficking, sign up for Upbring’s “Human Trafficking” webinar, offered monthly from Foster In Texas. (This training satisfies the requirement for all foster parents in the state.)
And if you or someone you know needs urgent help, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or humantraffickinghotline.org.