Writer / Speaker
by Melody Dean Dimick

       Real monsters walk among us daily. Teens seek thrills in the form of frightening movies and children search for creepy Halloween costumes. More frightening than what they’ll find on the big screen or store shelves are sexual predators such as the infamous Ariel Castro and the horde of human traffickers skulking in the shadows. These monsters capture, abuse, and imprison other human beings.

       Stealing across the border under night’s starry quilt, aided by the coyotes* who charge them saved or borrowed money, illegal immigrants enter the nightmare of the undocumented. Like modern-day slaves or indentured servants, many victims of human trafficking work against their will in homes, restaurants, factories, and on farms. Perhaps the last meal you ate in a restaurant was served by an enslaved person. In their desperation to partake of a piece of the American dream pie, many illegal immigrants trap themselves into lives of misery at the hands of smugglers.

       Don’t be smug. Don’t turn a blind eye. Illegal immigrants are not the only enslaved people. Traffickers’ most lucrative merchandise is young children. The average age of victims trapped in lives of misery where they are often beaten, starved, and forced to work as prostitutes is fourteen. One third of teen runaways are approached by a trafficker within 48 hours.

       Traffickers don’t jump out of the shadows and yell “Boo!” Smooth con men approach girls who are not used to attention from the opposite sex, flatter them, and gain their trust. They often isolate and move them far from home. Once young girls become dependent on the criminals in rescuer’s clothing, the con men coerce them into lives of prostitution.

       Runaways are not the only targets. Social networking sites provide a venue for traffickers to lure teens seeking love and acceptance. Like the pirates we hear about when we visit The Pirates’ House restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, or the St. Augustine [Florida] Pirate & Treasure Museum, traffickers shanghai young adults into lives of servitude. One modern-day ogre tattooed his initials on his victims, essentially branding them like cattle and claiming ownership.

       Bogeymen don’t lurk under the bed. Predators prowl our streets night and day seeking victims to subjugate and sell like merchandise. They prey on our teens, young adults, and children, stealing innocence. Unaware, we pull the sheets over our heads, convincing ourselves that horrors happen to other people or trafficking doesn’t harm us. Wrong! Other than the cost of human dignity and suffering, smugglers provide a ready source of income for organized crime groups and terrorists.

       And young girls are not the only marks for sexual exploitation. A young boy sits alone on the subway in New York City. A disarming man says, “May I help you?” Within minutes the boy becomes a victim—a commodity.

       The 2008 study conducted by John Jay College and the Center for Court Innovations, titled The Commercial Exploitation of Children in New York City, estimated that as high as 50 percent of the commercially exploited children in the United States are boys. According to Carol Smolenski, executive director of End Child Prostitution and Trafficking-USA (ECPAT-USA), the Jay study is the only study with hard statistics on the trafficking of boys. A Florida Department of Law Enforcement officer told me off the record that there will be a push by the FBI to track exploitation of boys, beginning in 2014.

       Many ask how human trafficking can happen in America. After all, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. But don’t be fooled or complacent; it did not end bondage. There are more slaves on earth today than during any other time in history. Human trafficking is the second-fastest growing criminal industry in our country.

       Over one million children are trafficked annually. If you have seen a missing tween or teen photo displayed on a pole or in a window, you may have been looking into the face of a victim. While law enforcement officers sought to shut down drug traffickers, more dangerous dealers infiltrated our society. These suppliers learned they could make more money by selling a reusable product—human flesh.

       One cannot walk the streets without finding homeless people. This adds to the problem. Tom Manning of Covenant House in New York City told me of a study conducted by Fordham University. Young people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one are much more susceptible to becoming victims when they don’t have a home. “Housing is a huge component,” he said.

       Do you think your children or grandchildren could never fall prey to a trafficker? Think again. According to an article titled “Dealing in Flesh,” from the magazine Style, a Lake and Sumter County, Florida, publication, the kidnapping of children is a rapidly growing industry. 

       Tom Gillan, executive director of The National Institute for Human Trafficking Research and Training, says 100,000 minors are victimized yearly. Do the math. That figure rounds off to close to 274 individuals enslaved daily. Carol Smolenski says trafficking is everywhere—in the cities, in suburbs, and in rural United States. According to the “Dealing in Flesh” article by Jim Gibson, which prompted me to write Silent Screams, two to four million persons are trafficked yearly around the globe.

       But there is hope. The FBI saved 105 sexually exploited children in a massive nationwide law enforcement sweep of 76 cities on July 29, 2013, and netted more than 150 pimps in the process. This coordinated action among federal, state, and local agencies, titled Operation Cross Country VII, was the largest enforcement action to date, according to the FBI.

       Legislators passed the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Act, making it easier to convict traffickers. The 2013 Safe Harbor Act ensures the safety of child victims who have been trafficked for sex and allows children who are rescued from prostitution to get help from child welfare professionals instead of being treated like criminals. When the victim of a sex crime is under eighteen, prosecutors don’t have to prove force, fraud, or coercion.

       Gov. Rick Scott of Florida signed a proclamation naming January as Human Trafficking Awareness Month in Florida. Whether you live in Florida or another state or nation, consider yourself informed.

       Safe houses struggle across the nation to save children, young adults, and men and women. In central Ohio, Gracehaven was founded in 2008 to provide harbor for sexually exploited children. According to its website, New York’s Covenant House, the nation’s largest adolescent care agency serving homeless, runaway, and at-risk youths, opens its doors twenty-four hours a day to provide a haven. Tom Manning told me there are also Covenant Houses in Orlando and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and in twenty-two other cities across the United States, Canada, and Latin America. According to team leader Laura, The WellHouse in Birmingham, Alabama, provides housing for former victims eighteen and older.

       We need more sanctuaries in every state. As citizens, we can no longer look the other way. Monsters threaten our children in small communities and big cities across America.

       What can you do? If you suspect a child is being exploited, contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children on their toll-free hotline, 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678). If you can afford to support a safe haven, consider doing so. As important, spread the word.

       My book, Silent Screams, is a fictional account of one teen who is abducted at the Howling Horrors Carnival. Please read it, and share a copy with your teen, grandchild, or niece or nephew. It is available on Amazon.com. There may be a teen in your life silently screaming for understanding or help.

       Teach your children and teens that monsters don’t lurk under the bed. They lurk in our midst. They may be strangers, but they are frequently people we know, like a bus driver or even a family friend or relative. Traffickers often threaten harm of family members if the victims tell. That is one way they get away with their crimes.

       Many people fight for their right to bear arms. They purchase guns to protect their families. They wouldn’t think of not having ammunition for their weapons. Children need the ammunition to deal with the predators among us. In this case, the ammunition is knowledge. Learn all you can about human trafficking and share that knowledge. Know how traffickers locate and entice victims, and what you can do to stop them before more children are scarred for life. Ask your senators and representatives in both state and federal government to make our borders safer by stopping human traffickers.

       Stranger danger is not the only danger to warn children about. Unlike the wolf that climbed into Granny’s bed and donned her nightgown in Little Red Riding Hood, today’s wolves appear in plain clothes, stealing their way into our cities and towns to prey on our young. Like the coyotes taking advantage of illegals, they also shred dreams. Tell children these wolves may be neighbors, relatives, or strangers. Put human traffickers out of business.

       *With all due respect to the animals, “coyote” is also disparagingly defined as: Someone who smuggles illegal immigrants into the United States (usually across the Mexican border).