January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention month and a good time to learn the signs of human trafficking and who to contact for help, an official said.


“This month brings awareness to the fact modern forms of slavery exist around the world, including sex trafficking, forced labor and domestic servitude,” said Linda Inmon, Extension specialist for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.


Common red flags in minors include: running away from home, skipping school, using cell phones they did not buy on their own, buying things with credit cards that do not belong to them, older boyfriends, signs of physical abuse such as burn marks, bruises or cuts; new tattoos (traffickers often use tattoos as a form of branding); and signs of gang affiliation.


“It is a time for people to join together to return the rights of victims and help create a safer world for all,” she said.


Sex trafficking occurs when a trafficker uses force, fraud or intimidation to control another person for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts against the person’s will. The crime has become an epidemic because it is highly profitable, according to a news release.


More than 300,000 American youth are considered at risk for sexual exploitation, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Around 199,000 cases of the sexual exploitation of minors occur each year in the U.S.


Children raised in foster care have a greater chance of becoming victims, Inmon said. Fourteen percent of children reported missing in 2017 were likely victims of sex trafficking, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Eighty-eight percent of those children had been in child welfare.


“Sex traffickers look for vulnerabilities in children as young as 12 years old,” she said. “The predator begins by flattering a child and appearing as their protector. The young mind sees this attention as love and care, only to later find out that it was all a mind game to introduce them into a world of sexual exploitation.”


A predator commonly uses a real or perceived threat of death, a sense of no escape, isolation and acts of kindness to create a trauma bond with their victims. When these four factors are present, it is not likely that the victim will turn on their predator, but often will protect them instead, according to the release.


“Trauma bond results from ongoing abuse in which back-and-forth cycles of reward and punishment create a powerful emotional bond resistant to change,” Inmon said.


According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), victims are manipulated or forced against their will to sell sex for money at locations including truck stops, hotel rooms, rest areas, street corners, clubs and private residences.


By learning to recognize the warning sides of sex trafficking, individuals could help save lives, Inmon said.


According to DHS, for safety reasons, individuals should never try to confront someone they suspect of trafficking directly or alert a victim to their suspicions. Instead, they should contact local law enforcement. To report suspicious activity, individuals can also call the DHS tip line at 866-347-2423.


“And if you feel like you may be in a trafficking situation, you should consider how to plan for your safety,” Inmon said. “Trust your judgment if a particular individual or situation makes you uncomfortable.”


HELP FOR VICTIMS


If you believe you are in a trafficking situation, HHS recommends the following tips:


• Keep all important documents and identification in your possession at all times.


• Keep important phone numbers on hand at all times, including the number of someone you feel safe contacting if you are in trouble.


• Make sure that you have a means of communication (cell phone, phone card), access to your bank account and any medication that you might need with you at all times. Have an extra phone charger on you.


• Document any unwanted contact by your trafficker (calls, texts, emails, showing up at your work/home). Save any voicemails, texts or emails that are threatening in nature.


• Have a special signal (lights flicking on and off, code word, code text message, etc.) to use with a trusted friend/relative/neighbor to notify them that you are in danger or a person/situation is suspicious.


• Call 911 if you are ever in immediate danger.


“Keeping children safe is our shared responsibility,” Inmon said. “As parents, teachers and community leaders, we need to ensure that our children know they are loved, wanted and are a vital part of our society. We must provide safe havens, build up the self-esteem of all children and become observant of their behaviors, as well as the behavior of others.”


To get help from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, call 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733).


Details: www.dhs.gov/blue-campaign or www.acf.hhs.gov/otip/.


The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without discrimination.


— Will Hehemann is a writer/editor with the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.