In many ways, human trafficking is as much of an economic problem as it is a social justice issue. Traffickers see exploitation as a lucrative supply-and-demand business, with its victims as an expendable commodity. Because of this, traffickers are opportunistic. They seek out vulnerable people, those who are easier to recruit, have fewer safety nets, and are less likely to report the crime or even recognize that what they are experiencing is criminal. Consequently, they often target youth, especially those who have been in the child welfare, foster care and juvenile justice systems, are experiencing homelessness, running away, or identify as LGBTQ+.
Trafficking takes many forms. The perpetrator may be an individual seeking commercial gain, a gang-related enterprise, or a situation that is facilitated by a family or household member. While it seems inconceivable that parents would traffic their own children, it may be happening as a result of their own trauma, addiction, joblessness, poverty, or other factors. For some, trafficking is a means of survival — a way to secure shelter and food. Traffickers will target individuals who are desperate for a safe place to sleep or a meal by meeting those basic needs first, creating a dependency, then grooming the individuals to be exploited.
How can we take action to protect those who are vulnerable to trafficking? Education and awareness are critical – understand the signs of exploitation, watch for cues, teach parents and children about the issue, build trusted relationships, ask someone if they feel safe or how they get their basic needs met. People who are exploited often feel invisible. Professionals are addressing this by using Lighthouse to screen for the risk factors that relate to trafficking, and refer those with highest levels of concern to services. Data collected in Lighthouse is also helping pinpoint areas of the state with greater overall risk, in order to direct more resources to those communities and build resiliency.
Lastly, how can we dismantle the “business opportunity” for traffickers? We have to interrupt the demand side of the business by directing policies, enforcement and penalties toward the buyers as much as the traffickers. We need to hold traffickers and buyers accountable for their actions. Ultimately, it is about treating one another not as a commodity to be bought and sold, but with the basic, inherent dignity that everyone deserves.