Trafficking survivors aim to reach teens before traffickers do

by Andrea Powell | Karana Rising
Tuesday, 5 February 2019 10:02 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It's time we talk about how we are going to actually prevent human trafficking

Surprise spread across the faces of the 6th grade students sitting in a presentation about human trafficking when my colleague, Liz Kimbel, shared that she is a survivor of child sex trafficking. In a city-wide effort together with the District of Columbia’s Office of Attorney General and members of the D.C. Human Trafficking Task Force we are working to ensure we reach students before traffickers do.

Every day, children are sold for sex or forced to work without pay in deplorable conditions. Just last week, a former D.C. police officer pled guilty to buying sex from two teenage girls and 14 minors were recovered during a three-day sting operation across the country in Los Angeles. The need for mandated prevention education on human trafficking in every state is apparent and survivors are at the forefront of this effort here in Washington, D.C.

In 2003, Liz was a 14-year-old teenage girl whose trafficker sold her blocks from her home. After months of being sold hotel to hotel to hundreds of men, she escaped with the help of law enforcement. She is now the director of programs at Karana Rising, a nonprofit we founded together that provides wellness and life skills to survivors of human trafficking, many of whom are teenage girls whose vulnerabilities led them into exploitation in much the same ways she fell prey.    

In 2009, preventing human trafficking by going into American schools was often looked on with disdain. The general public and even educators did not realize the magnitude of American teens being trafficked across the country. That year my team at my first nonprofit, FAIR Girls, educated 1,000 students inside D.C. schools. It was the same year Ashley and three other teenage victims were found on those same streets after being sold to dozens of men by a registered foster parent.  

“I wish I had known what was happening to me was called “human trafficking” because I would have known it was not my fault. I want anyone who is reading this, especially if you are a hurting kid like I was, to know that there are also real people who are here to help,” says Ashley when asked why she is a survivor leader and educator with Karana Rising.

Human trafficking arrests are up by 20 percent, but thousands of children like Liz and Ashley are still out there not able to find the help they need to escape. While films often show girls kidnapped off the streets, most survivors report it was the emotional chains that kept them ensnared in their traffickers’ grasp.  Many sex traffickers use false promises of romantic or parental love. Sadly, this was the ploy used on both Liz and Ashley. Just one month of sex trafficking leads to 90 to 150 sexual assaults, loss of education, severe trauma, and sexually transmitted diseases. Others use promises of a job and better life to force kids to work with little to no pay. Effectively, childhood ends when human trafficking begins.

Empowering teachers on how to identify and reach out to an at-risk student in their classroom is just as critical as educating the youth themselves on the dangers. This includes understanding the links that poverty, prior sexual abuse, undocumented status, structural inequalities, previous contact with the juvenile justice system, substance abuse, mental health disorders, and domestic violence all play in placing youth more at risk toward human trafficking.

There are increasingly diverse and survivor-informed curriculum and materials reaching youth in schools. In a recent prevention education workshop using the survivor-informed  I AM JASMINE STRONG campaign, students asked serious questions about how teens like Jasmine (featured in this video) could get help and what actually happens to those who sell (traffickers) or buy children. Toward the end of the class, we share community resources and show students how they can also become part of the movement to stop human trafficking.

The majority of youth survivors of sex trafficking report meeting their traffickers online. Thus, prevention education tools like the recently released comic series “Wolves in the Streets” created by UNITAS and a team of survivor consultants, reaches teens via Instagram.

In an open statement to teens, Liz recently shared, “the little girl I was grew up broken and hurting. The woman I am today is still hurting, but no longer broken from the feeling of injustice that has never left me these past 16 years. I’m still becoming my full self. Help me to honor the young girl I was then by acknowledging now human trafficking that is occurring around you and we must stop it.”  

By mandating prevention education in every state, we get one step closer to honoring every survivor and stopping human trafficking before it begins.

Andrea Powell is the founder and executive director of Karana Rising, a nonprofit providing care and supportive programs to support survivors of human trafficking in reaching their fullest potential. She is also the founder of FAIR Girls.  Learn more at @Karana_Rising