When Girls Go Missing: Denver and Human Trafficking

Katherine Miller | @runofthekmill 

Today, May 25th, marks National Missing Children’s Day, established by Ronald Reagan to prioritize the safety of children. According to the Colorado Bureau of Investigations, 29 children on average are reported missing every 24 hours in our state. Approximately 84% are between the ages of 14-17, with 50% being 15 or 16. In 2015, there were 10,398 missing children reports in Colorado--97% of those reports were children noted missing for “non-suspicious” reasons (e.g., they are believed to have run away or been taken by a family member).

Yep, I know. Sh*t’s gettin’ real, right here, right now on The Broadview Denver. But that's where we are going today. And it is important you hang with me. Because when we talk about missing children, we also need to talk about human trafficking.

Human trafficking is the severe exploitation of a person for labor or commercial sex through the use of force, fraud, and coercion.

Most media representations (ahem, Taken) will have us believe trafficking:

1.     Only happens outside of the United States;

2.     Involves being kidnapped, or taken, by someone the victim does not know; and,

3.     Occurs in underground, seedy clubs where victims remain hidden.

I’m here to burst that bubble. Human trafficking happens in the U.S.--usually by someone the victim knows--in plain sight, every single day. Additional shocker: it happens in Colorado.

Remember  that 97% figure I mentioned earlier? The children (mostly  between the ages of 11-17) who are missing for non-suspicious reasons? They’re at a huge risk for trafficking, and traffickers look for particular vulnerabilities and circumstances when evaluating potential victims. While anyone of any gender and sexual identity can be trafficked, women and girls have increased vulnerability due to gender oppression and a cultural acceptance of violence. By accepting violence against women and girls as the norm, we allow crimes like human trafficking to thrive.

Add being a runaway youth to the mix, and you’re looking at a perfect vulnerability concoction for a trafficker to exploit. In the U.S., nearly one-fifth of homeless youth are victims of human trafficking. When you’re living on the streets without food and money, and not knowing where these things will come from next, the promises made by a trafficker are quite tempting. What would you do if you were hungry, exposed to the elements, and lacking the skills and resources to provide for yourself? Youth are desperately trying to survive, and that desperation is inviting to a trafficker. Traffickers are looking to build trust and fulfill a need—and once they do, they introduce force, fraud, and coercion.

Often, girls who run away from home have experienced some kind of physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or familial violence in their lives before running. Prior victimization is a risk factor for human trafficking, and nearly 42% of suspected or confirmed victims of domestic minor sex trafficking were repeat runaways. Within 48 hours of leaving home, 30% of homeless youth will be actively recruited for sexual exploitation or other forms of trafficking.

Has your jaw hit the floor yet? I know it’s all a little bit jarring; it shifts your worldview. And it should. But this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Look at it as your call to action. Your wake up call to pay more attention. And I’ll give you the tools and resources to do both: identify signs of trafficking and get involved in your community.

Red Flags

Here are some things to pay attention to when trafficking may be present:

-Avoiding eye contact. Those who are being trafficked often avoid making eye contact because they do not want to be identified, and have been told by their traffickers not to trust others. The fear of being criminalized for their behavior (whether it be sex or labor) is highly stigmatized; traffickers know this, and use it to maintain compliance and control.

-Appear submissive or fearful. Victims of trafficking will often defer to their trafficker, or appear hyper-vigilant of their trafficker’s presence. They may be watched or followed.

-Not allowed to speak for themselves. People who are trafficked may default to their trafficker when asked direct questions, or the trafficker will speak on their behalf consistently in public. This can be as simple as ordering food or  answering medical questions in an exam room.

-Living in poor conditions or with an employer. How many of you live with your boss? Definitely an indicator that something is not right, especially in the case of a minor.

-Not in control of their own money or documents (if they had any). Identification and money are some of our keys to autonomy; controlling these two things give traffickers immense amounts of power while denying their victims access to the means to survive independently or otherwise gain economic freedom.

-Signs of physical abuse. Look for bruises, scratches, untreated wounds and infections, or broken bones that haven’t healed properly. (Reminder: not all abuse is physical, and therefore marks on the body may not exist, but it’s always good to check.)

-Multiple/frequent STIs and pregnancies/abortions. When being trafficked for sex, victims will come into contact with a lot of people and generally do not have the power or means to negotiate safe sex practices.

-Branding. Traffickers may brand their girls as a means to claim ownership of them. These generally take the form of tattoos somewhere very visible on the body, and will often say things like “Daddy” or the trafficker’s name.

Even if you’re recognizing signs, approach the situation with caution. You don’t want to put someone in greater harm or danger, including yourself.

What You Can Do

Now that you know a little bit more about trafficking, you can begin engaging in efforts to stop it.

You can call the hotline. If you've identified signs of trafficking and fear someone may be trafficked, you have a powerful resource right at your fingertips. The Colorado Network to End Human Trafficking (CoNEHT) hotline is a 24/7 statewide resource and referral network, assisting survivors in meeting their immediate needs and reporting community tips to trusted law enforcement officials. Call 1-866-455-5075 anytime, even if you’re unsure whether or not trafficking is present. Want to take it a step further? You can volunteer for this hotline.

You can request a training for your place of employment or community group. The more you know about human trafficking, the more equipped you are to do something about it. The Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking (LCHT) is local grassroots organization specializing in training and research, and has been a central force in the Colorado anti-trafficking movement for over 11 years. You can request a Human Trafficking 101 training, or something specifically tailored to your organization or populations you work with.

You can be an informed consumer. Pay attention to where you shop, where and how things you purchase are made , and how they get to you. Yes, even that organic produce of which you are so fond! Look for items that are fair trade and seek out companies that are transparent about their supply chains.

You can donate money. I know that’s a hard ask, but the anti-trafficking movement in Colorado is severely underfunded. Survivors of human trafficking need a unique set of services, and the local organizations who provide those services can use all the help they can get.

Deep breaths, you made it. Now you’re ready to begin your social change journey to end human trafficking. Baby steps always come first, and I applaud your willingness to stick with me on this. We can no longer afford to look away from these uncomfortable topics. We must address them, loudly. Our children--especially our girls--depend on your active involvement.