What Every Parent Needs to Know About Sex Trafficking: Stats, Myths, Signs and Prevention

Knowledge is POWER. Keep Your Child Safe by Learning the FACTS.

by Nancy Reynolds
This post: What Every Parent Needs to Know About Sex Trafficking: Stats, Myths, Signs and Prevention
Written by: Heidi Chance – Undercover Detective in the H.E.A.T (Human Exploitation and Trafficking Unit)

Sex trafficking… it’s not always easily recognizable. It’s not always a blatant crime that can be witnessed. And, it’s not the vision most people have in their minds with young victims being abducted and taken far from their homes against their will. 

In fact, more often than not, it’s a quiet crime of coercion and control. It can happen to any child regardless of gender, age, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or location. And, it’s happening across the United States in every single state… chances are, right in your hometown.

As an undercover detective in the Phoenix, Arizona Police Department assigned to the Human Exploitation and Trafficking Unit for more than 13 years, I have investigated thousands of sex trafficking cases.

I have investigated cases where parents were completely unaware that their child was being trafficked and where children didn’t even identify themselves as a victim because they were expertly brainwashed by their sex trafficker. Mostly, during my tenure in the unit, I realized that there are far too many misconceptions about sex trafficking that need to be corrected. Here’s what every parent needs to know about sex trafficking.

What Every Parent Needs to Know About Sex Trafficking: Stats, Myths, Signs and Prevention


What Is Sex Trafficking?

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, “Sex trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which individuals perform commercial sex through the use of force, fraud or coercion. Minors under the age of 18 engaging in any commercial sex act are considered to be victims of human trafficking, regardless of the use of force, fraud, or coercion.” 

Sex Trafficking Statistics

Here are a few stats from Liberatechildren.org, The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), Shared Hope International, and my own personal experience:

  • Human Trafficking (including for sex as well as labor) in the United States generates $9.5 billion dollars annually
  • Of the children who ran away from home and were reported missing to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2022, 1 in 6 were likely victims of child sex trafficking
  • 40% of all child sex trafficking cases occur in North America
  • 65% of all victims are women and young girls 
  • The average age of child victims is 12-14 years of age with children rescued as young as 3 years of age

How Sex Traffickers Operate

According to Blue Campaign, an organization dedicated to ending human trafficking, traffickers often prey on the weak or vulnerable. Children who live in unstable or abusive homes or kids who lack a family support system may be targeted. In some cases, children may be targeted simply because they are young and less equipped to make informed or sound decisions, or unable to recognize the warning signs of a human trafficker. 

Who Are Sex Traffickers?

Most people have a vision of sketchy men preying on young girls, abducting them in broad daylight and holding them against their will. But according to Blue Campaign, that’s not exactly the profile of a trafficker. The harsh reality is that there isn’t a single “face” of a sex trafficker. They can be young or old, male or female, friends or strangers – which is why parents need to stay so vigilant.

  • Romantic partners or “pimps”
  • Family members
  • Friends or peers
  • Employers or other professionals
  • Connected by mutual friends
  • Strangers

Who is at Risk of Being Targeted by a Sex Trafficker?

Because sex traffickers seek out the weak, vulnerable, isolated, and those without a strong family support system, certain children are at a higher risk than others of being targeted by traffickers. However, it’s important to recognize that any child can be a target of sex traffickers. Some of the primary risk factors include:

  • Children who live in poverty
  • Children who are homeless
  • Children who have been in foster care or juvenile systems
  • Those who lack support networks with friends, family, or other trusted adults
  • Gang involvement
  • History of running away
  • Low self-esteem
  • Being bullied
  • Prior discrimination due to race, gender identity, sexuality, disability, or other personal characteristics
  • Family history of sexual abuse or violence
  • Community or familial history of trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation
  • Substance abuse or addictions
  • Cognitive and/or physical disabilities
  • Experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event
  • Cultural trauma (particularly among minority communities)
  • Being the sole or primary provider for their family

How Sex Traffickers Lure Their Victims

According to Blue Campaign, there are many places sex traffickers go to seek out their victims, including:

  • Social Media, Online, Dating Apps:  Targeting children online has been an increasingly common tactic among traffickers. They seek out vulnerable kids who are receptive to their advances. 
  • Popular Meeting Places & Hangouts: Any location where young girls and boys gather can be a targeted location for sex traffickers, including malls, concerts, parks, house gatherings, community centers, etc.
  • Schools: Peer-to-peer recruitment may take place in schools as traffickers coerce (or force) victims to recruit their peers.
  • Group Homes, Detention Centers, Shelters, and Foster Care Homes: Traffickers target young children who may be experiencing hardship or who don’t have a strong family support system. 

6 Myths About Sex Trafficking You Need to Know

There is so much misinformation about what trafficking is, who is affected, and what it means for a child to be trafficked. Here are a few debunked myths you need to know.

MYTH #1: When someone is trafficked, they are kidnapped and held against their will.

FACT: Being trafficked may be a gradual process. It may take weeks or even months of grooming and manipulation by the trafficker before a victim is exploited. Victims may appear to have free will but are often controlled by their trafficker through fear and other forms of mental manipulation.

MYTH #2: Traffickers are older men who prey on younger girls. 

FACT: Traffickers can be any gender, age, or race. They can be someone the victim knows and trusts or a perfect stranger. 

MYTH #3: Only girls are sex trafficked.

FACT: Youth of all genders are vulnerable to becoming a victim of sex trafficking.

MYTH #4: Children who are victims of trafficking don’t attend school.

FACT: Children who attend school and are involved in community activities are still at risk of being trafficked. Victims may still attend school regularly and participate in their regular after-school/extracurricular activities. 

MYTH #5: Sex traffickers typically target victims they don’t know.

FACT: Traffickers are known to target the vulnerable. They may target friends and family or take advantage of any mutual connections in order to establish contact with a potential victim.

MYTH #6: Trafficking only happens to young people who have run away from home, are in foster care, or have a drug dependency

FACT: While the runaway population and those in foster care are at higher risk of being trafficked, it does not mean everyone else is immune. Traffickers will exploit anyone. In fact, many trafficking victims come from solid homes.

6 Signs That Your Child or Another Child You Know May Be a Victim of Sex Trafficking

What every parent needs to know about sex trafficking is that their child IS being targeted.

They’re being targeted online, on social media platforms, and on their cell phones. They are being targeted on the street. They are being targeted when they’re out with friends in public places. And, unfortunately, they may even find themselves targeted by people they know. 

1. If You Notice a Change in their Behavior

The sex trafficking industry uses specific terminology. If a child starts speaking and using certain terms, those terms could be an indicator that they are around people speaking that way and that should be a red flag. Know the Language of Human Trafficking: A Glossary of Sex Trafficking Terms

Additionally, is the child acting fearful, anxious, depressed, tense or nervous, or paranoid? Are they skipping school, suddenly becoming disruptive in school, dropping out of their normal activities, sneaking out at night, or running away from home? These are all dramatic shifts in behavior that require parents’ immediate attention. 

Download my FREE “Tips for Parents & Teens!”

2. Changes in How They Dress

This could be difficult, especially with young girls. However, when their child starts changing the way they dress, specifically dressing more provocatively, parents should ask questions. It could be that they’re merely trying to fit in at school, but it could also be that they’re dressing a certain way (or even packing a change of clothes in their backpack) so they can leave campus during the day to meet up with a trafficker. 

3. Connecting with Strangers Online

I know we want to trust our children and allow them the space to grow up and become independent. However, the internet is a very dangerous place. Parents need to have access to their children’s social media accounts. I am a parent, too, and my kids know that “there is NO EXPECTATION OF PRIVACY in my home.” I’ve made it known to my child that I will search through their phone when I want, as often as I want. I will also have access to their social media and passcodes at all times. Believe me, parents I know this is a strict mindset, but THIS IS WHAT IT TAKES TO KEEP OUR KIDS SAFE.

During my time as an undercover detective, I have engaged in hundreds of conversations with traffickers attempting to recruit me on my undercover social media accounts. I have numerous social media accounts – all undercover personas and all made with the purpose of encouraging traffickers to recruit me instead of a live victim. The conversations are startling, often consisting of manipulative techniques in an attempt to convince me to leave home and go with them. These are the same types of conversations your child could be having online!

4. Coming Home with a Random Electronic Device

This is a HUGE RED FLAG! Parents need to take it away, Even if the device is old with a cracked screen and appears to only have WIFI capabilities. Even if the child claims that “they found it.” Don’t let them keep it!

5. If They Come Home with Money, Expensive Gifts or Other Items of Value

Parents should always ask who gave the item(s) of value to their child and take steps to verify the source and reason for the gift. It could be a red flag. 

6. If You Notice a “Branded” Tattoo or Mark on Their Body

A brand is a tattoo that traffickers place on victims indicating that they “own” them.  It is an advertisement to other traffickers that the victim is owned by them and it helps them show how successful of a trafficker they are – especially if they “own” several “branded” victims. This tattoo could be a moniker name or a symbol and is usually in an area for everyone to see, but it could be hidden as well.  

How to Protect Your Child from Becoming a Victim of Sex Trafficking

Keeping your child safe starts at home. Here are a few “protective barriers’ you can put in place to prevent your child from being a target of sex traffickers.

  • Put a high priority on connecting with your child and making them feel valued and loved.
  • Build their self-esteem by helping them recognize their self-worth, capabilities, and potential.
  • Keep the lines of communication open. Talk to your child about online safety, how to identify red flags when talking to individuals, and what it looks like to be taken advantage of. 
  • Help your child develop a strong sense of community by encouraging them to be involved in various outlets with strong role models – sports, hobbies, clubs, volunteering, etc.
  • Have an open-door policy with your child. Let them know they can come to you about anything at any time. 
  • Encourage them to talk to adults if they’re suffering or in trouble. Whether it’s parents, a trusted friend, a teacher or coach, or a priest or pastor – let them know they have a strong support system that cares about them.
  • Talk about the danger of sex trafficking and educate them on the red flags to be aware of. 
  • Know the signs that your child may be a victim of a sex trafficker.

Final Thoughts:

Please, parents, take the time to be “nosy” and dive into your child’s business. Their well-being and safety could be at stake! Talk to them, educate them, stay close to them and let them know you are their safe zone, that they can come to you about anything and that you’ll always be by their side to protect them. Be their advocate in life… they’re relying on you to keep them safe. 

If you suspect someone is a victim of trafficking, contact the police and the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-800-373-7888. The confidential hotline is open 24 hours a day, every day, and helps identify, protect and serve victims of trafficking.

About Heidi Chance:

Heidi Chance recently retired after serving 25 years with the Phoenix Police Department. She spent 13 years of her career working as an undercover detective in the H.E.A.T. (Human Exploitation and Trafficking) Unit. In the unit, she conducted investigations targeting sex buyers and traffickers and trained many officers in undercover schools. She has also presented on sex trafficking cases she’s worked on across the United States sharing her experiences. Detective Chance, among others, was featured in the Frontline, PBS documentary, “Sex Trafficking in America.”

Heidi has created a course for general sex trafficking awareness for the public. The course launches on January 20th. To receive a 20% discount on the course, use the couple code: AWARENESSMONTH

For more information, please visit: Chance for Awareness  

What every parent needs to know about sex trafficking is that their child IS being targeted. ~ Heidi Chance

If you found “What Every Parent Needs to Know About Sex Trafficking: Stats, Myths, Signs and Prevention.” here are other posts you might like to read:

50 Potentially Life-Saving Safety Tips Every Teenager Should Know

Cyberbullying is on the Rise: 5 Tips to Keep Your Teen Safe Online

12 Ways to Protect Your Teen (Without Helicoptering)

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