The Top 10 Things You Need to Know About Child Trafficking in Southeastern Massachusetts
January 19, 2021
This article, it’s data and information included was written with input and information provided by team members from Children’s Cove, the Bristol County Children’s Advocacy Center, and the Plymouth County Children’s Advocacy Center.
In 2020, the Children’s Advocacy Centers for Cape Cod & the Islands, Bristol County and Plymouth County provided support and response services to approximately 280 child victims of human trafficking. Children in our communities, including Yarmouth, Westport, Fall River, Hingham, Brockton, Falmouth, Rochester, and Dartmouth, were identified as victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking. Over the last several years, the child advocacy centers (CAC’s) in southeastern Massachusetts have worked collaboratively with every branch of law enforcement and child protective services to provide a coordinated response to child trafficking. Often challenged with a greater understanding of the issue, we want to raise awareness of the terms, signs, and issues surrounding child trafficking, particularly in southeastern Massachusetts.
1. The Definition of Human Trafficking
Human trafficking is widely defined as “a crime that involves exploiting a person for labor, services, or commercial sex.” Massachusetts state law further defines the trafficking of children as the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC). The CAC’s of Massachusetts recognize that CSEC occurs when a person under the age of 18 engages, agrees to engage, or offers to engage in sexual conduct with another person in return for a fee or an exchange of food, shelter, clothing, education, or care. Child sexual abuse material (child pornography) can also be considered a form of trafficking.
2. Exchange Doesn’t Always Involve Money
While money is used as an exchange for exploitation, we often see the exchange of basic needs, such as shelter, food or transportation to exploit children. Additionally, we have witnessed the exchange of substances, including alcohol, marijuana, and nicotine products (vaporizers) in our region. Lastly, the exchange for beauty products, such as eye-lash extensions, manicures, hair styling, and in-store purchased items of value, are being used for both boys, girls and transgendered youth as a means of sexual exploitation.
3. Boys are Trafficked Too
There is a common misconception that girls are the only gender who are sexually exploited. Across the region, most of the sexually exploited youth have been identified as female. However, there have been an increasing number of male youths who have requested help or have been identified as victims. Similarly to other reports of abuse boys tend to under-report sexual exploitation too. By raising awareness that males are also victims of sexual exploitation, we hope to minimize the stigma of boys and young men requesting support and increase awareness for adults who can learn about the signs of exploitation in boys.
4. Human Trafficking Happens at Every Age
The average age of children (boys, girls and trans youth) we see being exploited in Southeast Massachusetts trends towards 13-years-old. However, children as young as 7 have been victims of trafficking. Additionally, trafficking does not end at 18, the exploitation continues as an adult.
5. Trafficking is in Your Town, and Maybe in Your Own Home
Human trafficking is not a far away issue, but one that is happening in our own back yards. Very often, children are exploited in their own homes, and in their own bedrooms, with their parents within reach. When children have access to technology, they can access and explore the world. In return, the world has access to them. With the onset of COVID-19 and more unsupervised time online, we have seen a dramatic increase in the exploitation of children online in this region. There has also been a regional surge in the creation and exploitation of child sexual abuse material (child pornography). Sometimes children are manipulated to create and send these images by online predators unknown to them. Other times, these images are self-produced and sent to peers. These images can then be shared without their knowledge or consent and can be used to exploit them more. At worse, these images can force a child into engaging in behaviors and actions they wouldn’t otherwise engage in or transition them into the world of in-person trafficking.
6. The Digital World Can Hide the Evidence
Children have the ability to create or access nearly an unlimited amount of social media profiles, fake email accounts, and online monetary exchanges such as CashApp, PayPal, and Venmo. These apps keep the evidence of exploitation hidden behind a mobile or internet-based device. We have seen an increasing trend of children being exploited over Snapchat, Instagram, Tik-Tok, Sugar-Daddy/Baby, and adult dating websites. The ability for an adult /exploiter to send money via an online service often makes it difficult for parents and caregivers to know that their children are receiving money in exchange for their exploitation online.
7. Trafficking Impacts All Backgrounds:
There is no one “profile” of a child who is exploited/trafficked. While there are some factors that lead to an increased risk, such as homelessness, in DCF custody/care, or living in residential group homes, trafficking impacts all backgrounds. Trafficking does not discriminate. Cases have originated from almost every town in the southeast region, regardless of economic status or geographical location. This has impacted our children everywhere from the smaller towns like Marion, Falmouth, and Dartmouth to the larger areas such as New Bedford, Fall River and Brockton. People who exploit children don’t care about their socioeconomic backgrounds; they simply care that they are children.
People who exploit children don’t care about their socioeconomic backgrounds; they simply care that they are children.”
8. Children Can’t Sell Themselves
We have heard cringeworthy language describing the exploitation of children. By law, a person under the age of 18 is a child. There’s no discussion here. A child cannot be a prostitute. In Massachusetts, by law, a child cannot consent to selling sexual content or acts. A child is not promiscuous. A child cannot “ask for it.” An adult is making the choice to purchase a child. An adult is making the choice to traffic or enable the exploitation of a child. An adult is committing a crime against a child. We need a significant change of language, and we need everyone to embrace holding adults who exploit or demean children accountable.
9. Exploitation is Being Normalized
Over the years, we have seen an increase in scary trends, which are pouring out into the futures of our children with nearly no breakers to the rising tide. “Sexting,” or sending sexually explicit text messages and images, has become a rapidly growing social norm for kids and teens. CashApp, Venmo and Paypal links are in children’s social media bio’s more than their ages or pet names. The rise of Sugardaddy and Sugarbaby websites are waiting for children the day they turn 18, and OnlyFans accounts and websites have an age verification system on par with a “click here.” Children are being inundated with social media personalities selling their images every day. Media plays a large role in reinforcing this behavior in children. What’s more, the buyers of these images and behaviors online are encouraged and hailed as nearly philanthropic. The nuances of adult versus child exploitation are fading away.
10. It Doesn’t Have to be This Way
There is a myth that everyday people cannot do anything about human and child trafficking, and it is false. Everyone can do their part to raise awareness of the issue. You can reach out to your local Children’s Advocacy Center and ask how you can learn more about the issue, or request a training for your local community, school, or child serving organization or business. You can report suspicious behaviors to your local CAC, law enforcement agency or file a report with the Department of Children and Families if you have concerns that a child is being exploited. If you see or suspect child sexual abuse material online or on social media, you can report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. You don’t need to know who the exploiter is; he or she can be unknown to you–what’s important is that you make the report.
As a parent, we want you to have the conversation with your children about body and online safety. You can set ground rules for internet usage and access. You can have these difficult conversations about online exploitation with your children and start when they are young. Most of all, believe children if they make a report, advocate for children in having their needs met, and always focus on the health, wellness and safety of children in our community.