Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series on human trafficking. Here is the first part, including information on the newly created Sydney Loofe Memorial Scholarship.
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If education is key in preventing human trafficking, then who do you educate?
Stephanie Olson, CEO and president of the Set Me Free Project, said education starts with knowing who victims of human trafficking are.
Olson said traffickers target mainly youth — girls ages between the ages of 12 to 19, boys around age 11, on average. She said young boys generally sell for a higher price, and predators are looking for the youngest kids possible. This is why the Set Me Free Project starts educating youth as early as third grade.
“We don’t talk necessarily about sex trafficking in second grade, but we start the conversation with safety, empathy and things like that,” Olson said.
Although certain ages are targeted more than others, everyone is at risk. Predators as a whole excel at the grooming process and look to see what needs are missing in a child’s life and entice the children with those needs, Olson explained.
“I think the other misnomer about trafficking is that it’s only happening to certain people or in certain areas, but the reality is that everybody’s child is at risk. Everybody’s grandchild is at risk. And with social media, it’s in our homes,” she said.
Traffickers look to social media as one of the main ways to find which needs a target is wanting filled in their life. They will look for those vulnerabilities, such as abuse in the past, drug use, not being well-monitored by parents. Predators play on those needs when recruiting their victims.
Olson said when educating youth on the trafficking, they examine various social media posts and try to look at them through the eyes of a predator. Basically, she said, “What does a trafficker see in this post?”
“There’s a number of different ways, but they always go after the vulnerable,” Olson said. “And just the nature of being a kid makes them vulnerable because . . . . that prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until the 20s, and so developmental wise, they just don’t have the ability to make those life and death decisions.”
Olson compared the process of human trafficking to any other normal business and with all levels of employees. Typically, there will be recruiters — the ones who actually go out and recruit the victims. The information gatherers will gather as much information about a target in order to select the best recruiter to recruit the victim.
Typically using social media, the information gatherer will find as much information as possible, and then happen to run into them somewhere, whether it be at a mall or a coffee shop. A conversation will be struck, she said, and the victim will be amazed with how much they have in common.
And then the relationship is built. It’s that easy, she said.
“They start to develop a relationship built on trust, and the grooming process can take days, weeks, years. It just depends on the situation. But at one point, something will change, whether they ask you to do something that you wouldn’t normally do, maybe they have held something against you,” Olson said. “It’s done through manipulation and coercion. That’s how it usually happens, and then they keep them in control.”
Olson said human trafficking is not just the typical “white van situation anymore.” While there are threats of people stalking parks or other areas where youth may be, the biggest human trafficking threat is built on relationships.
“The majority of trafficking victims nationwide know their traffickers before they were trafficked. And the majority of victims do not self-identify as victims, and part of that is because they know their traffickers. They’re in a relationship with that person,” she said.
In order to educate youth on the dangers of human trafficking and how to prevent it, the Set Me Free Project has developed curriculum from third grade and above. With youth, the speakers talk a lot about healthy and unhealthy relationships, teaching the kids the differences between a trustworthy and a non-trustworthy person, as well as teaching on social media safety.
The Set Me Free Project also educates community members and businesses on how to look out for current and potential victims and grooming situations. Stopping trafficking, Olson said, begins with education. It’s educating youth, parents and other caregivers.
“One of the things we know is that when the community is educated, trafficking goes down because the community is watching out for it,” she said.
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