What Parents Should Know About Human Trafficking

“You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.”

William Wilberforce was an English politician who began his career in 1780. An outspoken opponent of the slave trade and tireless advocate for its abolition, he wore chains to speak in Parliament on multiple occasions. He died a mere three days after seeing slavery abolished in most of the British Empire, his life’s work apparently complete.

Slavery is a terrible part of American history too. Thank goodness it’s been vanquished.

Except it hasn’t.


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What if I told you that there were more slaves today than at any other point in human history? Tens of millions of people are held against their will right now. Many are forced to perform sexual acts. Many others are forced to perform labor. This is the brutal reality of human trafficking–a $150 billion industry and the fastest-growing criminal enterprise in the world.

Human trafficking is a highly lucrative business. Unlike drugs or weapons, a human being can be sold again and again. Traffickers use force, fraud, and coercion to control their victims. They operate nearly anywhere there are people, including right here in the Tennessee Valley. And traffickers and those accused don’t helpfully dress like stereotypical pimps. They are very rarely  the “baby snatchers” your friend thought she saw at Wal-Mart or detailed in a Facebook post gone viral. They are your daughter’s soccer coach, or the man who works at the flea market.

human trafficking map
This map shows reports of human trafficking from 2007 to 2012—and the industry has only gotten bigger.

Trafficking the Most Vulnerable Among Us

Anyone can become a victim of human trafficking, but children can be especially vulnerable. Runaways and displaced children (such as by natural disaster or homelessness) are among the highest risks. However, traffickers also prey on latchkey children, or children who may have trouble fitting in. Even well-adjusted children can fall prey to, for example, promises of career or scholastic advancement, such as modeling, business ownership, or study opportunities. Predators are also skilled at luring children with social media. The ubiquity of the Internet makes these paths particularly accessible and dangerous.


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There are some telltale signs that a person may be held against his/her will. People who are being trafficked usually make little or no eye contact, and may seem to be controlled by another person. Young women may have much older “boyfriends.” There may be signs of abuse, or unexplained gaps in schooling. Victims may have tattoos, such as men’s names, “Daddy’s Girl” or similar, or even bar codes.

What To Do If You Suspect Trafficking

If you suspect human trafficking, it is very important that you not try to handle the situation yourself. This is dangerous for both you and the potential victim. Instead, pay close attention to the encounter, remember as much as you can, and contact local law enforcement. You can also call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.


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Agent Spencer Schneider with the Department of Homeland Security is based here in Huntsville, and says “Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) as an agency is first and foremost about the people it is here to protect and serve; therefore identifying and assisting victims is paramount. As a result, HSI employs a victim-centered approach, where equal value is placed on the identification and stabilization of the victims, as well as the investigation and prosecution of traffickers.”

human trafficking
Traffickers are your daughter’s soccer coach, or the man who works at the flea market.

Protecting Children in Huntsville

So what can you do to protect your own children? The quick, accurate answer is “everything you’re probably already doing, but now it’s even more important.” This is real and terrifying evil. Teach your children to avoid strangers. For older children who move more independently, know who they’re running with — both in the real world and online. Educate them as to how a trafficker might entice them. Make sure they understand that the bad guys reliably wear black hats only in the movies. In reality, the villains look just like the heroes.

The North Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force works to raise awareness about this terrible problem and ultimately eliminate it. The task force contains law enforcement officers, medical professionals, social workers, educators, and concerned citizens from many other walks of life. Meetings are held the first Tuesday of every month at 2 p.m. at the National Children’s Advocacy Center in Huntsville. Volunteers are welcome.

Local Resources for Parents