Familial Trafficking: The Untold Story Hidden in Plain Sight
A Survivor’s Story
Familial trafficking is one of the most misunderstood, underreported, and under identified/investigated forms of trafficking. It is one of the most challenging manifestations of domestic minor sex trafficking to detect. There is little research on this topic because no one talks about it. This is a family business, and most children are introduced to sex trafficking as early as possible within their families.1
Just like human trafficking, familial trafficking has been around for a long time but has never been talked about due in part because Familial Trafficking usually takes place in the home by a family member. This further compounds the difficulty of law enforcement to intervene and can only be rectified with training centered around this practice.
What is familial trafficking? Familial trafficking is the hidden process of exchanging a family member for goods, substances, rent, services, money, or status within the community. Familial trafficking does not just include a parent selling their children, rather across the USA, there have been cases documented of grandparents trafficking grandchildren, aunts and uncles trafficking their nieces and nephews, cousins selling other cousins, and brothers and sisters trafficking siblings. This means that familial trafficking does not fit into one mold. Not bound by social class, ethnicity, or demographics, familial trafficking often starts at a much younger age than other forms of trafficking (e.g., commercial sexual exploitation, labor trafficking, and domestic servitude).2
According to Kelly Dore — a survivor of familial trafficking, Director of the National Human Trafficking Survivor Coalition, and Legislative Liaison for United Against Slavery—familial trafficking is the abuse or exploitation of a victim at the hands of someone they know. Familial sex trafficking, specifically, involves traffickers (who sell victims for profit) giving offenders sexual access to victims or pornography in exchange for drugs, money, or something else of value. Kids are the prime targets of this heinous crime, and their perpetrators are often right in front of us, hiding in plain sight.3
Case in point, as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and familial trafficking, I was trafficked by my mother and her boyfriend. The first time my mother’s boyfriend touched me in an inappropriate way and threatened me not to tell anyone or he would hurt my family, I didn’t let his threat bother me., I knew what he was doing to me was wrong and decided to tell my mother what her boyfriend had done to me. Unfortunately, her exact words were “do not tell anyone because that is how the rent is getting paid”. So, I never told anyone, and my mother and her boyfriend continued to traffic me from the age of 8 to 13. This all took place at home, after school, and during the night. Different men would come over to the house and my mother’s boyfriend would then take me into my mother’s bedroom where she and he slept.
While in their bedroom, and before the abuse would occur, I would be forced to drink alcohol and take drugs, which I was told would relax me. Also, in my case, because I was from a large family and we always had family members who came by to visit, none of the neighbors who lived on my block would have thought anything suspicious was going on, so there would not have been a need to call the police or child protective services about any wrongdoing happening at my home.
Who are the victims of familial trafficking?
More than 200,000 children are victims of sex trafficking in the U.S. every year, and their families or family friends are the most likely to exploit them.
I was being exploited by friends of the family as well as a neighbor who lived across the street.. In fact, this neighbor would abuse me even while other people were in the house. He would take me to the bathroom and ‘do his business’. I have a scar on my left knee from when he had me kneel on the floor and a sharp piece of glass stuck into my knee. Once he was done, he told me I could go back outside and play with the other kids and keep my mouth shut.
For 90% of victims, child trafficking starts in the home. The average age of a victim of familial trafficking in the U.S. is only five years old, and some children are victimized as early as infancy.4
“They are American children. They’re in your schools. They go to your churches. If you’re a medical doctor, they come to your clinics.” – Kelly Dore
Many victims do not identify as victims or come forward to speak out about what is being done to them. They may fear the police or humiliation, feel guilt and shame about what they have experienced, or falsely believe what is happening to them is their fault. This is exactly what was running through my mind as a child, especially when I told the very person I trusted the most, my mother. When she said, “not to tell anyone, that is how the rent is getting paid”, who could I trust after that to tell what I was being put through? So, I began to think the abuse was all my fault because of the way I was built – fully developed at an earlier age. I was also told that what was being done to me would assist in me growing up to be a beautiful woman. I was a child and to think that my mother allowed them to take away my innocence at such an early age was unimaginable.
As for police officers, I did not have any trust in them either. I remember running away from home once and my mother came looking for me with a police officer. Because the officer was with my mother – and not properly trained – I did not see him as someone who would protect me. His lack of a trauma-informed approach made me see him as just another person who would probably pay my mother to have sex with me. Of course, my mother knew where I would run to, which was my father’s house. I was screaming and pleading with my father and the police to let me stay with my father. During my pleas, not once did the police officer ask me what was going on or why I did not want to go home with my mother – another opportunity when my situation could have been interdicted if only the officer had been properly trained. I remember my father asking the officer if I could stay with him, and the officer’s exact words were “you will have to take this up with Family Court” and made me go with my mother. The system had failed me.
According to Counter-Trafficking Data Collaborative (CTDC), family members participate in nearly half of child trafficking cases. Recruitment into Trafficking: Family/relative 41%, Gender: 66% female, Exploitation Type: 31% are trafficked for forced labor and 58% are trafficked for sexual exploitation.5
What can society do to recognize and help victims of familial trafficking? Listed below are signs to look out for as noted by Shared Hope International:6
- Poor mental health, abnormal behaviors, and lack of control
- May be fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid
- Tries to please adults or get inappropriate attention from them
- Tries to act older than peers or mental age • Inconsistent behavior, frequent mood swings
- Behaviors that appear to be sexually promiscuous
- May have vague answers; have been taught to hide secrets
- May have non-evident injuries that affect physical activity
- Isolated and does not socialize normally with peers, poor communication skills
- Appears tired and unable to keep up in studies Is not allowed or able to speak for themselves (a third party may insist on being present and/or translating during school meetings, medical appointments, church, etc.)
- Constant cover up for abuser, self-shaming/blaming
- Lack of understanding and education about bodily functions, rape, incest, sexual abuse
- May have poor hygiene, be unaware of body odor or common practices
As for me, everything described above went unnoticed by other family members, teachers, counselors, friends of family, law enforcement officers – something that might have been different if they had been properly trained. I identified with everything listed above and instead of seeing a troubled child, I was labeled as a bully, bad, and disrespectful. No one bothered to take the time to ask me what was going on nor why I was acting out. Instead, my mother made everyone believe that I was just a bad spoiled child.
Not even the teachers took the time to recognize that the person I was when I left the classroom at the end of the day, was not the same person who entered the classroom the following day. Not once did the teacher ask me if everything was alright. Instead, when I was disruptive in class in the hopes that she would ask if everything was alright with me or what cause me to change from the person I was day before, she instead took me to the principal’s office and told him I was being disrespectful to her, mean to the other children, and my parents should be called up to the school. Not only did the principal reach out to my parents, but he also stated to them that if my behavior did not improve, he would be forced to suspend me from school, which he did and then transferred to a school for troubled children.
Be The Solution
Familial trafficking is a big problem in our society and has gone unnoticed for far too long. As parents, teachers, law enforcement officers and counselors, do not ignore what is happening and what you see. If children are acting out on a constant basis, it is not because they are bad, they are seeking help and need to be able to trust an authority figure to open to and share what it happening to them. Will they share with you when asked the first time, perhaps not, because first they must gain your trust and know that they will be protected. More training needs to take place in the field of recognizing familial trafficking and the approach needed to protect the children.
Call To Action
So now that you have been made aware of what familial trafficking is all about and what to look for, do your part, join the movement, and become an advocate for familial trafficking, getting trained and providing services to trafficking victims and survivors.
By Barbara Jean Wilson, Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse and Familial Trafficking