TERRE HAUTE —
Human trafficking is the human rights issue that today’s youth should tackle.
So said the organizer of the nation’s oldest human trafficking conference when she spoke Tuesday to Vigo County high school students.
Celia Williamson, professor of social work at the University of Toledo, directed the teens gathered in the Sycamore Banquet Facility in Hulman Memorial Student Union at Indiana State University to take up the banner of human rights by going after traffickers, helping victims and prosecuting customers who support the economy of modern-day sex slavery.
“Human trafficking is the human rights issue of your lifetime,” Willamson said. “You want to be able to tell your children what you did to create change.”
Human trafficking can be found in many American communities -- including Midwestern cities such as Terre Haute -- where either drugs, guns or sex are involved in most of crimes.
“Does Terre Haute have illegal drugs?” Williamson asked, receiving a response of, “Yes” from the teenage audience.
“Does Terre Haute have illegal guns?” Again, a reply of, “Yes.”
“Then why wouldn’t Terre Haute have human trafficking?”
Too often, Americans think of “trafficked” victims as those born in other countries and smuggled into America. But statistics show, Williamson said, that the largest number of victims in the U.S. are American minors.
“Kids like you,” Williamson said.
About 300,000 child runaways are at risk, she said, and about 100,000 of them are now being trafficked.
She also broke some other myths — such as trafficked children will be seen working on the streets as prostitutes. But human trafficking is a business, she said, and so the business operators have learned to make the most of their product.
“Kids are premium product,” Williamson said, “so the trafficker won’t put premium product on the street. They’ll be at truck stops, casinos and sporting events.”
The victims will also be made available at massage parlors, escort services, tourist destinations and neighborhood “cat houses,” she said.
Williamson has researched trafficking and the sex trade for more than a decade, examining the experience of victims and establishing Second Chance, an organization that assists women and children survivors and victims in Toledo, Ohio.
The average age for recruitment by the traffickers is 12 to 14 nationwide, but usually 14 or 15 in the Midwest. Vulnerability is the key that a “recruiter” looks for when looking for new kids to manipulate into the sex business. Income, ethnic background and social status are not what makes a child vulnerable, she said.
Vulnerability comes from substance-abusing parents, living in poverty, parents with untreated mental illness, lack of friends, poor mothering and other unmet needs of a teen looking for acceptance or stability.
“As a business person,” Williamson said of smooth-talking traffickers, “I’m gonna present you with what you need — before I flip the script and [then] you make me money every night.”
Traffickers will look for new victims at malls, hang-out spots, the homes of friends and family, courthouses and juvenile centers, schools, social service groups, and particularly at neighborhood convenience stores, where a runaway teen might hang out in order to buy cheap food.
“A recruiter goes where parents think their kids are safe,” she said, listing the examples of the skating rink, arcade and shopping malls where parents drop kids off. And they don’t go to snatch children, as is the common misconception, because that creates a crime that focuses attention of the return of the child. A recruiter will befriend a child and then offer a better life, attention, fancy clothes, money or freedom.
In working with trafficking victims, Williamson said some common indicators show up among teens at-risk to be recruited. The teens might have run away at least once before, have educational difficulties at school, have experienced sexual assault in the past, have a history of court appearance and use drugs or alcohol. A child victim of emotional abuse, neglect, physical abuse, and forced homelessness — such as being kicked out by parents — is also more likely to become a victim of trafficking.
Other warning signs are difficulty in making friends, and “loving” someone who is much older, such as a 15-year-old girl with a 25-year-old boyfriend.
Another part of human trafficking that Williamson said has not received enough attention is the buyers who purchase sex, often called “johns.”
Those people, she said. can be people who normally have a position of trust — pastors, lawyers, law enforcement officers, business owners — as well as professionals such as truck drivers or drug dealers.
It can be hard for a victimized teen to turn in a “john” if the teen is arrested, because the adult might be a person of authority. Too often, Williamson said, the trafficked victim is arrested and charged, rather than the trafficker or the customer.
Her point in sharing the information with the high school students was to encourage them to take action to stop injustice, even as teenagers.
“Revolution begins in the mind,” she said. “If you change a mind, you change a heart. If you change a heart, you open doors. Knowledge is what makes change.”
Learning to speak up and work with others to take action is the next step. She said she did just that in organizing an international conference on human trafficking, prostitution and sex work at the University of Toledo.
“You don’t have to wait for your degrees or permission,” Williamson said. “All you have to do is know it’s wrong, and then bring people to the table.”
Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.