Within two months of working in the forensics division of the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) unit at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, Heidi Olson realized that many of the girls she examined were actually victims of human trafficking. SANE nurses investigate cases of suspected assault and collect evidence for law enforcement. When law enforcement officials bust a prostitution ring or apprehend a child on the run, they take the kids to the hospital for evaluation.
It turns out that trafficking victims have a common history, a pattern or formula, which she first saw in the case of a 16-year-old girl. This girl had been in a group home in the custody of the state. She ran from her group home but not from social media. Through Facebook, she met a group of traffickers who promised her food, shelter, and safety. Having earned this girl’s trust, they were able to move her from Missouri to Indiana where they put her to work selling herself. Police in Indiana arrested an older girl she was with and realized that this particular girl was a missing person and returned her to Missouri.
When Heidi examined this young woman, she had four sexually transmitted diseases, genital trauma, cigarette burns, and signs of general physical abuse. “This did not seem like your average sexual assault case—not that there is an average—but this seemed extreme, repeated,” Heidi told me. “I suspected she was being trafficked.” Heidi called law enforcement, the FBI, and Children’s Division—but no one came to check the case. She had to discharge the girl to the care of the girl’s grandmother, only to discover later that the girl ran away from her grandmother that night and was being trafficked again.
That case ignited within Heidi a desire for justice. “I told myself, We cannot let this happen again,” Heidi said. “Every system that is supposed to help these kids has failed.” Today Heidi is the SANE program coordinator at Children’s Mercy. She teaches nurses how to recognize trafficking and work with agencies to break the cycle of abuse as early in a child’s life as possible. Heidi also trains nurses, law enforcement, and community agencies to recognize the formula of sex-trafficking, a pattern she has seen repeatedly since that first young girl’s case.
The sex-trafficking pattern
Heidi learned that the common history sex-trafficking victims share shows itself in five factors.
1. First, these kids are born to parents whose lives are characterized by criminal behavior. Sometimes this criminal behavior includes sexual abuse by the parents or an extended family member. Heidi told me that Children’s Mercy sees an average of 35 to 490 children a month who have been sexually assaulted (a staggering number, but small compared to the 300 per month that Children’s Mercy reports for both sexual and physical abuse). Since sexual forensic evidence can only be collected within a five-day window, these are just the verifiable assaults. “Previous sexual assault is a big risk factor for being trafficked,” Heidi said. “In our community, there are hundreds of kids ripe for trafficking.”
2. Second, beside sexual abuse, illegal drug use frequently surfaces in these families, creating a handle for sex traffickers to later lure these kids, who have been exposed to those substances at an early age. In the family of origin and extended kin, illegal drugs are esteemed. Drugs equal money, clout, esteem, and power. Drugs are thus seen as valuable, desirable, and necessary.
You and I can bring vulnerable kids into our homes with the goal of giving them an identity with us and in Christ so they don’t identify with drugs and pimps.
3. Third, as a result of these criminal activities in the immediate family, these kids are placed in foster care. Kids who are trafficked nearly always became wards of the state early in their lives. In fact, Heidi told me that every victim of child trafficking she has treated was at one time a ward of the state. One hundred percent. “I am sure there are kids who are trafficked who haven’t been in foster care, but in my experience, they almost always are or have been,” she said.
The criminal behavior of the family of origin results in the child being removed from the home and placed in foster care or group homes. Often the foster placements are with extended family, labeled “kinship placements.” The problem? These family members often practice the same dangerous activities as the biological parent(s) the children were originally removed from. Abuse—including further sexual abuse—and drugs follow these kids from one family member to another. This prompts Children’s Division to step in a second, third, or fourth time. With each consecutive placement, the child becomes less attached to the foster home.
4. Fourth, the one stable factor in these kids’ lives is social media. Having begun an online presence, they make connections, chat, offer nuggets of personal information, and reveal themselves through both images and words. And pimps are social media experts.
5. Fifth, kids who become trafficked have run away from their foster home placement or their group home. Kids on the run are vulnerable. They are desperate to avoid getting reported to Children’s Division as that would restart the cycle of foster placements or group home assignments. “Imagine you are 14. You are living on the street—or attempting to. You can’t even meet your own basic needs,” Heidi explained. Where might these kids find shelter? Yes, the trusted figure on the other end of that social media connection.
On the street, these kids have no money and no protection. In this compromised state, they become increasingly susceptible to two often interrelated forces: pimps and drugs. Since the child on the run likely has a history that includes the idea that drugs are money, identity, and security, they become easy targets. Pimps know this. The men, women, and organizations that traffic kids for money know that these children are candidates for addiction. Drugs are an extremely persuasive force in the hands of criminals preying on former foster kids who have run away.
How do these children fall victim so easily? Some pimps are reported to have seemed caring and genuine—at first. “These traffickers are not thugs,” Heidi said. “They have a strategic business model.” Pimps start by making promises and fulfilling them. They promise their victims food and shelter, take them to the movies, buy them a cell phone, get them tattoos. Pimps provide an identity for vulnerable kids. And as the pimp earns trust, the pimp begins to break the kids in for sexual service.
Part of this scenario is nearly always drugs. Get the kids hooked on drugs and the promise of drugs will persuade them to give themselves away sexually. To establish in the kids’ mind that they are the property of the pimp, sometimes the pimp will move them to a different location. These kids are forced to live in drug houses in town and cities they do not know, and they are sold day after day. Heidi noted that the Indy 500, the Super Bowl, military bases, and truck stops are destination points for pimps when they want to take their girls on the road. Since these pimps need buyers, they take their supply (kids) to their highest concentration of customers (demand). What keeps the kids from running again? Fear, threats, and drugs. “Meth is the trafficker’s drug of choice,” Heidi told me.
What might break this cycle in a kid’s life? Death, or more commonly, severe disease or genital bleeding. A trafficked kid with a sexually transmitted infection (STI, as they are currently labeled) comes to a hospital emergency room late at night—and nurses like Heidi are called in to do an examination.
The average age of trafficked kids who come to Children’s Mercy is 12 to 13 years old. But Heidi has seen children as young as two and several in their mid-teens. When these nurses examine these children, they get one shot at helping them. “The vast majority of them, we never see again,” Heidi said. “We have this little moment in time when our worlds collide, and I think there is this sense of urgency that we need to intervene now to help.”
The Good Samaritan and vulnerable children
Fortunately, there is hope. You and I can bring vulnerable kids into our homes with the goal of giving them an identity with us and in Christ so they don’t identify with drugs and pimps. Prevention is the best tactic for fighting the foster-care-to-sex-trafficking pipeline. Welcoming kids who might be trafficked is applying Jesus’ famous parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25–37 to our mission.
When a Jewish scribe asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus answered with his own question, “What is written in the Law?” Jewish scribes were power brokers in Jesus’ day. In a culture of illiteracy, they could not only read and write, they were professional interpreters of the Jewish Scriptures. This scribe displayed his training by citing two foundational Old Testament passages, Deuteronomy 6:9–25 and Leviticus 19:18, telling Jesus that these texts in the law required Israelites to love God with all their lives and to love others as themselves. Jesus affirmed the scribe’s answer saying, “Do this and you will live.”
But the scene shifted when this scribe asked Jesus to specify exactly who his neighbor was. This scribe was looking for a way to limit the demands he would place upon himself and others in regard to caring for those in need around them. Jesus took up the lawyer’s question by offering the parable of the good Samaritan.
The parable begins with a nondescript man quickly becoming vulnerable to the point of death. This man left Jerusalem and as he was heading to Jericho, he was robbed, beaten, and left for dead. It is not a stretch to let this robbed, wounded man represent kids in foster care. Kids who have been abused and exposed to drugs, whose parents are incarcerated, differ little from the half-dead man in Jesus’ parable. As Jesus crafted the scene, both a priest and a Levite passed by and offered this man no help. These two religious figures did not obligate themselves to this man despite his vulnerable condition. They did not believe themselves responsible to care for this man even in his desperate state. It was the Samaritan—one whose Jewish lineage lacked the purity of a priest or a Levite—who broadened his shoulders to care for the wounded man.
Jesus concluded his parable by questioning the scribe, “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” Jesus led the scribe to understand that we should be more concerned with being neighborly to the vulnerable than categorizing who is or who is not worthy of our care. As New Testament commentator Darrell Bock put it, “The issue is not thinking about who someone else is, but what kind of a person I am.”
As believers partner together in their churches to act neighborly to vulnerable children, we can break the sex-trafficking pattern at step three—before children are sold for sex. Churches cannot prevent criminally-minded parents from having children nor can we prevent the abuse some kids may endure early in life. But if Children’s Division is swamped with foster-parent applications from your church and mine, social workers are less likely to continue to place kids in kinship placements where the cycle of abuse might lead to a runaway and the sex-trafficking formula operating in another child’s life. And in light of the increasing influence of pornography in our culture, which has a strong connection to trafficking, our churches will need to be more willing to care for vulnerable kids in the future.
Where does this all begin?
Many don’t realize the pornography and trafficking connection. But Heidi told me, “That is where it all begins. Pornography gives permission. It objectifies women to the point of being tools for sexual gratification.” Heidi noted that the pervasive influence of pornography is affecting younger and younger boys. The average age of a sexual assault perpetrator identified at Children’s Mercy is 11 to 15 years old. These are not the (usually) men purchasing sex but the perpetrators committing assaults against kids generally their own age. Where do these preteen boys learn of aggressive sexual activity? Pornography. And if boys act this way as preteens, they are likely to keep pimps in business later in their lives as their demand grows stronger. From a business perspective, pornography is a pimp’s marketing tool—and since sexual imagery pervades our culture, pimps do not have to pay an advertising agency.
But pornography is not just a contributing factor in the sex-trafficking epidemic, it is also often the end result of trafficking. According to Heidi, nearly all the trafficking victims she has treated report at some point being filmed as they were sold. Pimps see vulnerable kids as supply for the demand of their clientele. But the church offers something better: the church has the supply for the emotional and relational brokenness kids without parents desperately need. We have the chance to be the good Samaritan to kids robbed of a family.
Excerpted from Until Every Child is Home: Why the Church Can and Must Care for Orphans by Todd Chipman (©2019). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.