Tonight 25 News is Digging Deeper into the world of human sex trafficking, specifically, it’s ever growing presence in Central Illinois.
Statistics point to an overwhelming majority of victims identified in Illinois being from our own back yard and shockingly some of those victims, haven’t even hit puberty.
99% of human sex trafficking victims in the U.S are never rescued.
“We know that it’s scary and that we should do something about it, but what we don’t see is what’s lurking right beneath the surface,” said Carol Merna, Executive Director of the Center for Prevention of Abuse.
The organization said people don’t realize how close to home sex trafficking is really hitting.
“I always thought it was somewhere else or in a big city like Chicago,” former Sexual Assault nurse Nykole Jackson admits at one point, she was shocked to learn how abundant sex trafficking was in smaller communities- including, the one she called ‘home.’
Experts refereed to trafficking is an epidemic; one that’s doesn’t always have the dramatic beginning portrayed in Hollywood.
For example, the popular movie Taken. It chronicles a young girl who vacations out of the country with her best friend. The pair arrive at an airport and naively split a taxi with a foreign man whom the plot later on reveals, just deceiving them in a ploy to find out where they were lodging.
Ultimately, the stranger returns to their hotel and drags both girls from the room and off into an abyss of darkness.
“But it’s not always a taken situation or a kidnapped movie.” said Jackson. She explained almost 44% of younger victims are enticed by a promise of some sort.
“A Job opportunity or modeling career or an actress or ‘we can get your out of your situation,'” Jackson listed.
Carol Merna, the Executive Director for CFPOA, defined the epidemic clearly. “Human trafficking involves force, fraud and coercion. In a nutshell it’s modern day slavery.”
Annually, the sex trafficking industry generates an estimated $150,000,000,000. Yes you read that number correctly – billions of dollars.
The Center adds that statistics show 1 in 4 of the victims, are children. “Our youngest survivor that we’ve served at the center was 11.” Merna shared. It’s a reality they urge guardians not to turn a blind eye to.
Sara Sefried, the Director of the Center’s ‘Human trafficking’ division laid it all out. “Parents need to be aware of what their kids are doing online through social media. Video gaming is also a hot spot for traffickers to try and target youth.”
She also warns that outside of unsupervised screen time, minors are often targeted by people they already know, like an ex boyfriend or even a teacher. “Traffickers recruit at schools, at malls. Anywhere where children and youth gather.”
The same experts caution parents, this process doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes suspects can groom your child for months.
Watch for signs like increased secrecy, spending more time alone, online, or with new people. Also, take notice of them detaching from day to day activities.
Since January, the local Center for Prevention of Abuse has assisted in 30 reports of human sex trafficking and those are only the reported cases.
“Where we sit in Central Illinois is a really good spot for trafficking to occur. We have a lot of interstates. We are centrally located between Chicago and St. Louis.” explained Sefried.
That has experts calling on first respondents to be the first line of defense given the unique situations they encounter.
Those fighting sex trafficking say if firefighters, E-M-S, and police are trained to spot the signs, they can hopefully be part of the solution.
Peoria Fire Department Chief, Tony Ardis, agreed adding, “It is imperative that we are trained at every aspect of the issues that we may face.” You don’t have to be a trained official to spot someone in need of help.
Jackson reminds the community, “Most rescues are because of a bystander, not because someone came forward.”
Often times illegal immigrants are targeted, along with runaways, and overall young impressionable teens. Some of the signs can include an overly timid nature, being closed off or unusually quiet.
Joyce Derenzy, CFPOA’s Executive Director in Central Illinois adds some additional markers to look out for. “Does the person have freedom of movement? Who is in possession of their documents? You’ve gotta look below the iceberg.” she warned.
While all of these professionals say you should try to talk to a suspected victim alone, they say be prepared for possible resistance at first. “Most victims don’t even know they’re a victim of human trafficking.” said Sefried.
She adds, that manipulation runs so deep, those caught in the treacherous web can’t see beyond it; or worse – they’re too broken down. “This type of trauma has lifelong and lasting impacts on the survivors..there’s a lot of guilt o r shame”
20.5 months is the average time a victim is held before escaping or being freed, a fact unimaginable to some.
“What if this was your daughter? What if this was your little boy or your best friend?” questioned Jackson.
So parents, what’s the best prevention? Professionals said talk to your children, now! Regardless of their age, the urge you to pay close attention to who they’re talking to also.
Jackson highlighted the loopholes she sees with the increased access kids have the internet. “When they have access to the internet and access to social media, people have access to them.”
Advocates do acknowledge while this might seem like a terrifying topic to bring up with your children, they’re standing by to help.
There is 24/7 free and confidential support standing by for you.