LEXINGTON, N.C. (WGHP) — Human trafficking is a serious problem that can impact nearly anyone, but young people can be particularly vulnerable to certain types of exploitation.
Brianna Racchini, the executive director of Triad Ladder of Hope, a local organization working to stamp out human trafficking, warns that more people are becoming trafficking victims, and younger people having access to social media is making an impact.
“Human trafficking is not biased. Traffickers will use anyone and everyone that they can. And it’s not just sex trafficking. We see labor trafficking just as often as sex trafficking. And this can affect any gender, any age, any ethnicity, any socioeconomic status. Anybody can be a victim of human trafficking,” she said.
In the Piedmont Triad, Racchini says that large gatherings like the High Point Furniture Market often correspond to spikes in trafficking cases, however, the biggest threat often comes from closer to home.
“A lot of trafficking that we see happens in the family,” she said. “That’s the number one: a trafficker is going to be a family member or someone close to the family. So, make sure you know who your kids are hanging out with. Maybe the uncle that doesn’t work and offers to take care of your kids isn’t the best idea. Make sure you’re really deep diving into who your children have contact with.”
Human traffickers often take advantage of people by offering them things they want or need. For kids, it can be electronics, toys or other material items. For adults, it can be necessities like food and shelter.
For parents, keeping track of what kind of things their children do online is top of mind when it comes to combating predators, especially after multiple high-profile cases involving young teens being taken out of state after meeting adult men online.
In February 2021, a young girl was taken from her Denton home after talking with an adult man online via her school-issued device. She was found in Arkansas and the suspect, who was wanted in Pennsylvania for a similar case of child predation, died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound after shooting at officers.
A 13-year-old Texas girl who went missing on March 1, 2023 was found locked in a shed in Davidson County almost two weeks later. Authorities and her family say that messages discovered on her online gaming profiles and social media indicate she was being groomed and enticed, allegedly by Jorge Camacho, who took the girl from Dallas and brought her to North Carolina. Camacho has been charged with a number of sex offenses as well as human trafficking.
What is human trafficking?
The FBI defines human trafficking as the illegal exploitation of another person. This can involve forced labor, sex work, domestic work such as housekeeping or nanny work or any number of jobs that a person is forced into doing on behalf of a trafficker.
North Carolina state law defines human trafficking as when a person “recruits, entices, harbors, transports, provides, or obtains by any means another person with the intent that the other person be held in involuntary servitude or sexual servitude” or “causes a minor to be held in involuntary servitude or sexual servitude.”
As Raddicci said, victims are often lured in by promises of things that they want or need, whether that’s necessities like shelter or luxuries like electronics. The FBI adds that traffickers can often use violence, coercion or “false promises of well-paying jobs or romantic relationships to exploit victims.”
Child sex trafficking, more specifically, is when a child is being exploited through a “commercial sex act.” This can be for money, through prostitution, but it can also be in exchange for shelter and food.
The Center for Missing and Exploited Children elaborates that children can be trafficked by gangs, family members or pimps, but can also be trafficked in a situation called “buyer-perpetuated trafficking.”
This is described as a situation where there is no “trafficker” but the “child’s vulnerabilities are being exploited by offering money, food, and/or shelter in exchange for sexual exploitation.”
This is often tied into the phenomenon known as “grooming,” which is what the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office and family members described messages exchanged between Camacho and his victim as.
RAINN defines grooming as “manipulative behaviors that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught.”
While grooming is most often used against younger children, RAINN writes, teens and vulnerable adults can also fall victim to these patterns of manipulation.
Grooming builds trust between the victim and the perpetrator, often desensitizing them to inappropriate topics of conversation and trying to make the groomer’s behavior seem normal so the victim doesn’t question the inappropriate behavior.
By the numbers
In 2022, NCMEC received more than 19,000 reports of possible child sex trafficking. They also received 400 reports of children who had run away and were likely victims of child sex trafficking, who were also being exploited specifically through a gang.
When children run away frequently or for long periods of time, they tend to be running from an unsafe situation.
One in six of more than 25,000 cases of children reported missing to NCMEC were likely victims of child sex trafficking.
Of the children reported missing to NCMEC in 2022, who had run from the care of child welfare, 18% were likely victims of child sex trafficking.
If you believe you know someone who is the victim of child exploitation, you can report it to the NCMEC’s CyberTipline.