Combating Nationwide Child Trafficking
with Teresa Huizar of the National Children's Alliance
Each year, as many as 300,000 American children are at risk of being victimized of commercial sexual exploitation.
Teresa Huizar, Executive Director of the National Children’s Alliance, discusses the prevalence of this issue in all 50 states and the importance of engaging communities to better protect children.
January 06, 2020
Hong: Human trafficking is a modern form of slavery occurring in all 50 states and the District of Columbia regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background. Many trafficked children do not recognize themselves as victims and often face significant mental-health difficulties including high rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Hello. Welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Ellee Pai Hong. Joining me to discuss commercial sexual exploitation of children in the US is Teresa Huizar. She's Executive Director of the National Children's Alliance. Teresa, thank you so much for your time today. Appreciate it.
Huizar: Thank you, Ellee.
Hong: You know, when I was reading up on this issue, it's really surprising to me that this is happening in the US with American children, and this is a home-grown issue.
Huizar: I think many of your viewers would be so surprised by that. They imagine that this is an international problem primarily with individuals brought across borders in order to be trafficked, and certainly that does exist, but the majority of domestic sex trafficking involves kids right here in our own schools, our own neighborhoods, and our own families.
Hong: And this usually starts out with sexually exploitative images, right? That transfers over to trafficking of these children.
Huizar: It can start in a variety of ways, including having abusive images taken, which is then used to sort of lure children in by exploiting them, as sextortion we call it. You know, where you're sort of threatened, if you don't do more of something or become further involved, these are going to be shared more broadly. But it can also happen with runaway children, with throwaway children whose parents forced them to leave home. It can also be the result of physical abuse or sexual abuse that's happening in the home.
Hong: And unfortunately, this is a growing trend because of the prevalence of the Internet, the ease of the Internet, the anonymity of the Internet.
Huizar: Well, the explosion in abusive images and also in terms of child sex trafficking has had to do with the Internet, both in terms of platforms, a variety of online platforms, and the explosion of social media. So just as one example, there were 18.4 million reports of sexually abusive images in the US last year. And so many that would have been unreported as well. All of those traded in those various ways.
Hong: Now, I want to point to something that you said. You said, "sexually abusive images." You want to make a distinction between child porn and child prostitutes because these kids are being victimized.
Huizar: That's right. I think that one of the things that we've become more sensitive to is that when a term like child prostitution is used, rather than recognizing children as being trafficked, or when we talk about child pornography and people think of that sort of like adult pornography and not as abusive images of sexual abuse in and of itself, we're just really diminishing the victimhood and the trauma that these children have experienced. So we want to really call this what it is, which are forms of abuse and exploitation of children.
Hong: Now, if this is happening in our own backyards, what can folks do? What can they look out for to help these children out?
Huizar: Well, first of all, I think we need to recognize that some children are particularly vulnerable, and some youth are particularly vulnerable to being exploited. And so we know that children who, for example, have been physically abused or sexually abused at home, or may be a part of the foster care and child welfare system, or may have run away or may be homeless or their parents may have put them out of the house -- all of those kids are at unique risk, and they're particularly vulnerable to being trafficked or to have abusive images taken of them and those shared more broadly. So I think when we see those kids in schools, in our neighborhoods, as a part of our extended family, we need to reach out and provide support immediately as a prevention strategy. And also just because it's the right thing to do.
Hong: And you really want people to know that things can change for these kids. There is a hopeful outcome for them.
Huizar: It's so true. Sometimes we think that once a child has had one of these experiences, their life is ruined. And certainly if they continued on in that way, there are terrible long-term results that could happen. But if we intervene early, if these children receive the mental-health care they need and deserve, if they're removed from those abusive situations where they're being trafficked, we know they can go on to lead healthy adult lives.
Hong: And you want them to know there is another adult that they can rely on, because oftentimes the trafficker is their only adult figure, the responsible adult figure in their lives.
Huizar: It's so true. When you think about the groups of kids that I talked about as particularly vulnerable, the constant threat is that there's so much instability in their own family that they don't feel that they can rely on anybody within it. So they're seeking some adult figure to provide that stability -- the food, the shelter, the housing, the affection that they need. And so what a trafficker does that's so insidious is they step in and pretend to or provide some of those things. And a child or youth feels like "If I leave that, I'm leaving everything and will have no support at all and may not survive." So one of the ways that we can help intervene is being a community of support around these vulnerable kids so that they know that there are many people in the community that care about them and will reach out and help them.
Hong: Another aspect to this problem and the rising numbers and the prevalence of this problem is that oftentimes the Johns aren't the ones getting convicted, caught and convicted, right?
Huizar: Well, there's just so many problems. That is one of them, which is that there are still statutes on the books in which there are kids who are considered "child prostitutes." I put that in quote because it's an offensive term to us, but that's the way they're referred to still in some statutes and therefore arrested still. For behaviors that are beyond their control when they're being trafficked. And I think that we absolutely have to end that practice and recognize these children and youth for the victims that they are. And we have to hold responsible those who are purchasing these services, those that are trafficking these children, and those that are exploiting them.
Hong: On that note, thanks so much for coming in, Teresa. I appreciate your time today.
Huizar: Thank you so much.
Hong: And thank you so much for joining us as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit comcastnewsmakers.com I'm Ellee Pai Hong.