Concerned about the human trafficking stories you see in the news and on social media? We were too. KAG Contributor, Kristina Hernandez, visited with SWITCH, a non profit dedicated to helping victims of human trafficking and educating parents on how to protect their kids. She interviewed Jesslyn Griffith, the former Community Engagement Coordinator at SWITCH, and is bringing us tips for keeping our kids safe.
Maybe it’s because I’m a paranoid parent or because my work involves following the news – which is almost always bad – or maybe just because I watched Taken too many times, but sex trafficking is something that is consistently on my mind as I raise my two daughters. The fact that Greenville County leads the state in human trafficking cases has not escaped my notice either.
So I have a lot of questions, as I’m sure most parents around here do, about trafficking and I want – no, I need – answers. What is considered by law sex trafficking? What can I possibly do to shield my kids from being victims? What do I need to know about trafficking in Greenville and what do I need to watch for? Are my kids at risk of being snatched by traffickers in WalMart or someplace public?
Thankfully there is a nonprofit, SWITCH, in Greenville that works with the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office to not only help victims of trafficking recover, but also acts as an organization that educates the public, works to decrease demand, and intervenes to help women get out of trafficking and counsel them in recovery. Since their inception of the restoration program in 2014, SWITCH has helped over 115 victims of trafficking,
Jesslyn Griffith, the former Community Engagement Coordinator at SWITCH, became my new friend when it came to learning everything I needed to know about sex trafficking here in Greenville. She answered all my questions patiently and thoroughly, which are below. You can watch our Facebook Live interview with Jesslyn below because you cannot have enough information when it comes to protecting your children.
Kidding Around Greenville (KAG): What is the actual definition of sex trafficking?
SWITCH: Sex trafficking takes place when force, fraud or coercion is used to induce someone into the commercial sex industry, or when a person 18 yrs or younger is involved in the commercial sex industry.
KAG: What are the biggest misconceptions about human trafficking?
SWITCH: Trafficking looks different internationally than it does in the U.S. and it looks different within different parts of the U.S. Because we often think it happens like it does in the movie Taken and involves international kidnappings, chains, and dark basements, we miss it.
It’s such an unseen enemy because it involves psychological chains of force, fraud and coercion. A person can be living at home with their parents but being sold by peers on the weekend. So many victims don’t even self-identify because they aren’t in chains. Also, part of training for traffickers is to try to convince the victim it was their idea or choice. A young person who runs away and ends up being trafficked for a place to sleep may think it’s their fault this is happening because they chose to run away. Traffickers will exploit any vulnerability they can.
KAG: At what age are kids commonly trafficked? What do they have in common?
SWITCH: Nationally, the average age is 12-13 years old; in SC, the average age is 14-16 years old.. Traffickers are so good at what they do – finding someone’s vulnerabilities and unmet needs and then meeting those needs to build trust and establish a strong connection for the sole purpose of exploiting that person through the vulnerabilities and unmet needs they have. It’s the highest level of manipulation and deceit.
The number one way traffickers are reaching youth is through social media. A young person will complain about their parents and the trafficker will jump on that, relating to the youth, becoming a trusted friend, They then begin the process of grooming the young person and isolating them from people they are close to so they can break and turn them out into the commercial sex industry more easily. In our country, 300,000 youth are lured into the commercial sex industry every year.
KAG: How are kids usually recruited into the trafficking industry? Is it in person, online, through friends?
SWITCH: In SC, most cases involve recruitment by a family member.
KAG: Wait, what?! A family member?
SWITCH: This is a hard one for me to understand as well. SC is the #1 state in the country for reported cases of familial trafficking. Recruitment is the way people are brought into the commercial sex industry. The sad thing is, it often becomes a normalized way of life for people eventually and sometimes the only way they know to survive. There are many things traffickers will do to keep victims trapped in this lifestyle as well: criminal records, ruined credit, and drug addictions. It’s often hard for people to escape the commercial sex industry once they have been forced, frauded or coerced into it.
KAG: OK – back to the original question – how are kids recruited?
SWITCH: The second most common method is someone pretending to be a boyfriend which is know as a Romeo Pimp. Peer trafficking came in as the third highest method of recruitment. This could be someone already in “the life” of the commercial sex industry who is now recruiting for their trafficker or a peer who is using threats and blackmail to coerce a classmate to have sex with others. There are numerous tricks, traps and schemes used to force and trick kids into this.
KAG: What steps can parents take to educate themselves on signs that their child may be trafficked and educate their kids on the dangers of sex trafficking?
SWITCH: As part of our prevention program, we have a presentation for parents to help educate them on what to look for and how to talk to their kids about this. It’s important to be a safe person for your child to talk to. Be mindful of your reactions when your kids open up and share things with you. Keep an open line of communication with them and know who the influences are in their lives. Be so careful with technology and social media.
Rick Floyd with Greenville County School system has a Facebook page with a lot of great information on it regarding online safety. He will also come speak to parents as well. You’re trying to guard and protect your kids from as much of this as possible but they need to know what’s happening so they can help protect themselves as well. Love146 is a wonderful resource for parents as well and be sure to check out our website as we will be updating it in 2019 to provide more information on all of this.
KAG: Anyone on Facebook nowadays reads about moms who are followed at WalMart or someplace like that and are petrified that someone is trying to kidnap their child for trafficking. Are those legit concerns? Do pimps really prey on kids like that in public places?
SWITCH: Anything can happen and it’s always good to be aware and cautious. With that being said, our local law enforcement does not receive calls about this type of thing and they aren’t handling cases involving this type of situation. We’ve done a great job teaching our kids about stranger danger and that’s important. With sex trafficking, the exploiter is someone the young person knows and trusts which is one of the most difficult things about these situations. It’s really important youth understand their own vulnerabilities and also know what a healthy relationship looks like as well as red flags to indicate it might be turning into an unhealthy relationship.
KAG: Does SWITCH help victims escape or do you work with other organizations who do that and then you take over on the business and counseling side?
SWITCH: Escape is tricky and looks much different depending on the situation. Some are desperate for a fresh start and do the hard work necessary to heal and start a new life. Not all situations are like that though. For a girl being sold by the man she considers her boyfriend, the level of manipulation is so deep. Even though she is being mistreated and abused, she may be in love with him and willing to endure the situation. Sometimes, people are trapped by the circumstances created by their traffickers like ruined credit, criminal records and drug addictions which makes it harder to break free.
For all victims though, there is an incredible amount of trauma to work through. A person has to be ready to leave the life they know behind in order to pursuit a healthier future. Healing is not easy though and there’s a great fear of the unknown. People know what to expect from their abusive situations and find ways to cope. It may feel safer to keep surviving what they are than to step into a situation where they don’t know what they can expect. Readiness for change is such a key to success though.We encourage them, love them, guide them, but it’s important they make their own choice.
KAG: Greenville County has one of the largest number of sex trafficking cases in the state. That’s concerning. Why is that and what is SWITCH doing to lower those stats?
SWITCH: We’re on the I-85 corridor connecting Atlanta, which is often the highest ranked city for trafficking cases reported and Charlotte, who is usually in the top ten. We’re a convenient location between the two. Also, we currently have two dedicated officers focused on sex trafficking. It’s possible the rest of the state has as much activity but not enough man power within law enforcement to expose what’s really happening.
KAG: What resources does SWITCH have for parents who are looking for help on learning about sex trafficking, especially locally?
SWITCH: In addition to the coming updates to our website, we’re glad to speak to groups in order to raise awareness and train in prevention practices.
About SWITCH: SWITCH was founded in 2012. The idea behind our name is when you switch a light on, the darkness flees. We push back the darkness of sex trafficking through five programs: awareness, prevention, demand, intervention and restoration.
Through our awareness program, we speak to businesses, churches, and other organizations to help adults understand what sex trafficking is and what it looks like in the Upstate. Our prevention program takes Love146’s Not a Number curriculum into youth groups, schools, the department of juvenile justice and other organizations with children in the 7th grade or older. Demand is a group of male volunteers who work with men in the Upstate connecting dots between how online porn is fueling the commercial sex industry. They provide resources, accountability and mentors to help break the addiction of pornography so many individuals face. Intervention is a group of volunteers who go into the district and strip clubs to meet commercial sex workers where they are and offer friendship with no strings attached. When people are ready to leave the life, they know SWITCH is a safe place they can come for help.