WATERTOWN — Ashleigh Carlin was about seven months pregnant when a man approached her at a market in Seattle, leading to an eye-opening lesson on child sex trafficking in the United States.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “The United States not only faces a problem of foreign victims trafficked into the country, but there is also a homegrown problem of American children being recruited and exploited for commercial sex.”
July 30 was National Child Trafficking Day, and one local organizer didn’t see a lot of attention brought to Watertown. So she organized the Stand Up for Children March in Public Square on Saturday, where families and friends came out to hold signs and raise awareness.
Ms. Carlin, who moved to Fort Drum about a month ago, was there with her sign, but a few years ago she was at Pike’s Place Market in Seattle. She said traffickers target pregnant women, and she didn’t know at the time that she was at the prime stage of her pregnancy for being taken.
She’s walking through the iconic market, shopping, when a man approached her and started asking about her pregnancy and how far along she was. Thinking it was just a regular conversation, she answered the questions. The man asked if she was having a boy or a girl.
“I guess I just wasn’t being vigilant enough,” she said.
Then the man asked if she was there with family or alone.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what have I been doing this whole time?,’” she said. “I’ve been feeding into everything he’s been asking me. So I said ‘My family is right here.’ And I just picked out a random person and walked away.”
Whether the man was a threat or not, it was enough to make Ms. Carlin take notice of the child trafficking problem domestically.
“Here I am just living in my own little bubble, shopping at Pike’s Market like everything is OK in the world,” she said. “And then here is a red flag that shows me no matter where I am, what I’m doing, this is really going on. It’s here and it’s real.”
The organizer on Saturday, Jessica Corson, is also the spouse of a soldier on Fort Drum. She was the one who took notice of the little awareness brought on National Child Trafficking Day.
“I wanted to bring it to our small little part of the world to raise awareness,” she said. “I don’t think enough people could possibly know about it.”
Ms. Corson said the country is in an era of protest.
“Black Lives Matter, which I support, is huge,” she said. “It’s all over the country right now, so why not bring awareness to children as well? Yes, we know Black lives matter, all of us matter, but children’s lives matter, too. I feel like they keep getting swept under the rug and not as important, but I feel like they are most important. They are our future.”
Ms. Corson and some friends recently raised around $1,400 for Operation Underground Railroad. The organization is made up of former CIA agents and law enforcement officers that identify where trafficking might be. One example, Ms. Corson said, is they use trained dogs to sniff out hidden USB cards in a home where child pornography is suspected.
She said she’s also a volunteer for the Child Rescue Coalition, which in part tracks IP addresses to prevent child pornography from being shared.
“There are children every day who are getting sold into sex slavery,” she said. “It’s alarming numbers. It’s horrendous to think about what they go through. If you were to put your child’s face on that child, you would be out here.”
She added: “If it was one of my children that went missing or was sold, I would burn the world down trying to save them.”
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