Written by: Katie Linn | Previous Executive Director of Exploit No More
It is not uncommon to see a story featured on the news about children abroad who have been sold into the sex trade at a very young age by their own family. These parents often make the decision to sell their children in order to make extra money to care for more valued children, often boys; to purchase material items; or to feed a drug or alcohol habit. However, right in our own cities, American families also sell and traffic their children, and are much more difficult to identify than the families abroad.
While families in impoverished countries justify selling their children out of necessity, parents who traffic their children in the United States are motivated by a very different reason – the pursuit of power and control. Children who are victims of familial trafficking often grow up in a home and a family that is very well respected within the community. While the family may have strong connections to the leaders in society, they also may have ties to gangs and pimps who work with them in the trafficking of the children.
Familial trafficking is perhaps one of the most difficult types of domestic minor sex trafficking to detect. Often a ‘family business’, trafficking is a culture within the family that is passed down from generation to generation. Therefore, within a family that traffics their children, it is rare that one single person is the trafficker and enabler; but rather the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins have all been raised in a similar way and may play a role in the trafficking. As a result of this, it is difficult for someone who grew up in a familial trafficking environment to recognize their victimization and to brake the cycle with their own family.
From an extremely young age, sometimes even from the moment of birth, violence and abuse become a part of the child’s life, with rape and sexual abuse beginning as young as possible. These children grow up with the normalization of rape and violence, being told that there is nothing wrong with having sex with adults. If the child does begin to detect an abnormality about their family, parents us a form of mental abuse called gas lighting, through which the truth is twisted and false information is given to the victim, causing the child to question their own memories, beliefs, and sanity.
Parents will also use manipulation through threats of abandonment and separation from the family. They continually tell their children that if they were to ever tell someone what happens within the family, they will be separated and will never see each other again. Even as adults, the family may cut out a victim if they decide to admit the abuse and speak out, leaving them without a family unit altogether.
As the main goals of the trafficker in a familial trafficking situation is power and control, they will work hard to maintain normalcy to the world outside of their own family. Many children will continue to regularly attend school, may receive good grades and often participate in extra curricular activities. While they are manipulated by their parents and influenced by he family culture, the children will be very cautious of what they tell adults and may have very limited, if any, one on one access to an adult who may be able to pick up on any trafficking signs.
Due to the manipulation, the strong family ties with respected community members, and the parent’s efforts to appear as normal as possible from the outside, child victims of familial trafficking are very difficult to identify. The younger the child is, the more likely they will be able to be identified and recovered from their exploitation. Any individual who has contact with a child on a regular basis should be aware of the subtle signs of potential familial trafficking and be able to get the child help if needed.