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The global epidemic of sexual slavery | Beeville Bee-Picayune | #childpredator | #onlinepredator | #sextrafficing

A teenage girl leaves her job in Corpus Christi one day, with nothing but the clothes on her back, and vanishes into thin air. The police regard it as a runaway. The parents, distraught, seek every avenue to find her. They hire a private investigator. They reached out on social media. It didn’t add up – not to Tina Canary, operations manager at New Life Refuge Ministries.

Who runs away from home with nothing but the clothes on their back?

Over a month later, the girl was found – in Florida, the victim of horrific human trafficking, sexual abuse. She was a prisoner, and she had done everything she could to escape. Two attempts had seen her severely beaten. Her traffickers kept her under close watch – but she managed to get a message out, connecting to her sister through the online service of the Xbox video game console.

“She sends a message to her sister, saying she doesn’t know what to do,” Canary said. “Her sister responds “Where are you? Everyone’s been looking for you. We hired a private detective…and the child said ‘wow, people care? They’re looking for me?’”

This was Canary’s first crisis situation call with a child from Corpus Christi.New Life Refuge, an organization that combats the ever-growing and increasingly pervasive world of child trafficking. This story has a happy ending – the girl is home now, safely returned to her family thanks to the joint efforts of New Life and a host of other organizations, a growing alliance of people and groups who are willing and able to combat an evil as old as civilization itself. 

“A community came together,” Canary said. “She’s home now, she’s in Corpus, and with her testimony they were able to arrest three of the people, one female and two males.”

Yet human trafficking – for all intents and purposes the modern day slave trade – continues. It impacts adults, and it impacts children. In fact, it is growing. It is an industry that brings in billions of dollars, that impacts every nation around the world, communities big and small. It is an industry that has surpassed the arms trade, that rivals – and may yet eclipse – the illegal drug trade. 

“I call it a global epidemic in every neighborhood,” Canary said.

And it is thriving in Texas. 

By the Numbers

At any given time, there are roughly 79,000 children in the state of Texas alone who are being trafficked; by comparison, the nationwide estimate that a survey from Texas UT found came out to around 300,000 at any given time. 

This is likely a lowball estimate.

“To us, that’s a low number – because the boys are less likely to report,” Canary said. “Texas is number 2 in the nation between California and Florida for number of incidences reported on trafficking.” 

These numbers do not factor in the flood of trafficked individuals, children and adults, flooding over the southern border. Those numbers are far harder to track.

“I saw an article during COVID where there were 1500 12-to-17-year-old girls only who were taken from our border to the San Diego Coliseum in California to house them,” Canary said. “Great, that’s wonderful – but me and my inquisitive mind a few months down the road was like ‘what happened to those 1500 kids?’ I’ve heard nothing about it. I found one article that said 350 of them had showed up…it alluded that the others were picked up by ‘sponsors’ along the way.”

New Life Refuge Ministries focuses on domestic sex trafficking. The United States is one of the top consumers of the sex trade, and this trade generally manifests in four ways, according to statistics from the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children.

  1. Trafficker-controlled. The word ‘pimp’ has fallen out of favor due to its lionization in popular culture, and so the individuals who are commonly known as pimps are referred to as traffickers or predators. They can operate online or in person.

  2. Familial trafficking. Those children who are trafficked by their families. The statistic from NCMEC was that the top three familial traffickers are: biological mother, stepfather or boyfriend, and biological father. Reports on this particular type of trafficking are lesser than others, because the abusive behavior has often been normalized. 

  3. Gang controlled. Effectively organized crime, the primary focus of the movie Sound of Freedom, which detailed a sting operation that busted an organized trafficking gang. “They’ve learned that you can sell a child over and over and over again,” Canary said, a fact emphasized by the film as well. “Compared to once for the drug or the gun.”

  4. Buyer-perpetrated. Perhaps the most well-known form, with individual or lone-wolf predators who court children through social media, online interactions, who target vulnerable runaways and so on. They offer safety and security, but this proves transactional, and they are at the mercy of the individual predator.

While one shouldn’t grade evil, the sobering fact of these four paths of predation comes from the realm of familial trafficking, which Canary said accounts for roughly 40 percent of all sex trafficking.

“It’s either a deficiency or an addiction or ‘this is what my parents did when they couldn’t pay their rent.’ Children are trafficked directly out of their home,” Canary said. “We gently talk about this, because the last statistic I saw on this was that roughly 40 percent of trafficking occurs through familial trafficking.”

Sexual abuse in families is often normalized, to the point where the victims don’t even think to report it, because they lack an understanding that it is wrong.

“That’s what they understand to be normal,” Canary said. “This has been going on since they were three-years-old or five-years-old.” 

Two motivations rank chiefly among the reasons for sex trafficking: money and power. Yet this is not a perversion of poverty; the practice occurs at every level of society, from the upper echelon to the low, from slums and ghettos to gated communities.

“There are judges, I actually talked to a survivor who, her parents, her father was (well-known) in the community and they would ship her off to her grandmother’s place and she would be bawling as she saw the lights of the cars coming in, one after the other,” Canary said. 

There are more examples:

Citing a story from Shared Hope International, Canary spoke about a young woman, a high achiever in school, studying to be a nurse, who was courted and befriended by an older couple who visited the place she worked, regular customers. They scouted her, Canary said, learning her birthdate, what her hopes and dreams are – her ideal choice of a man. 

“They knew what kind of boy would be her dreamboat – and they sent him in,” Canary said. “He introduced herself, got her to lie to her parents and go to Seattle with him … He introduced her to all these people who were not in his age group and she didn’t understand it. They were in this great big Victorian house on the lake and she didn’t understand. The parents report the vehicle stolen and … had that car been in her name, she probably would have been completely (off the radar).”   

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton put out a video which revealed several instances of trafficking in the state – one of them featured a gated community in Houston. 

“The whole community kept watching these cars go by, in a cul-de-sac … and somebody got to thinking ‘that’s not the same vehicles,’” Canary said. “There were over 20 women being held captive in this gated community, in this beautiful house, as a brothel.”

The realities of this world are even more bleak overseas. An example Canary provided was a six-year-old girl in Mumbai, India, who was kept in the most appalling of living conditions imaginable, confined to little more than a dog kennel and released from it only to perform commercial sex services.

These are grim, grotesque stories that many people do not wish to talk about – and this is precisely the cloak of ignorance that enables this industry to flourish.

“They don’t realize how wide and deep this is,” Canary said. “The United States has a different view on it than other countries. Another team member for New Life Refuge worked for the Salvation Army for 20 years. They went to India, they went to help the sex workers. In India, begging is (socially below) sex work. It’s considered better, and there are mothers with children under their bed performing commercial sex to support themselves and their family. At one point in time, the Salvation Army folks … (decided they) were going to buy them and give them a new life. As they did the exchange, the trafficker was counting the money and laughing. They were like ‘what is going on?’ and the trafficker said ‘you buy 10? I buy 20.’”

So long as there is demand, there is supply.

Modernized Evil

Technology has become a key part of human trafficking. Children are more susceptible than ever to predation thanks to the proliferation of social media.

“Social media is not a blessing on this generation,” Canary said. “Earlier in 2023 The US Surgeon General already put out a report on how damaging it is for their mental health including higher rates of anxiety and depression– it’s bad for everybody’s mental health!” 

Yet social media, dating apps and the internet at-large has become a fertile ground for the spread of trafficking and the exploitation of children and young people. While incomplete families may be particularly vulnerable, two-parent households are far from exempt from the dangers of digital predators.

“I would say (single-parent households) are greatly more vulnerable,” Canary said. “But you can have a two-parent home, both are working, doing great things … and not having a relationship with their child, the child is missing something.” 

Traffickers can pick up on that, form friendships online, and get control over the child. This can be all the more exacerbated by the influence of pornography and the unethical practices of sexually-oriented businesses.

“Over 50 percent … of those in trafficking said that photos and videos were made of them while they were being trafficked,” Canary said. “The children are shown pornography to know what to expect in this industry. You have folks online who are smiling … and they are trapped there.”

Parents are often deceived by how pervasive pornographic or other such services can be. Canary described applications on phones that will conceal adult apps and programs, making them look as innocuous as a calculator. 

Recent legislation in Texas has sought to address illegal brothels and possible underage victims of trafficking in legal establishments. When the legal age to work as a stripper or in similar work was at 18+, it was easy for businesses to pass off underage workers as being of-age. In 2021, Texas passed statutes to directly address that, raising the age to 21+ and increasing the severity of fines against those who violate them.

Still, there remains a sobering naivete concerning the subject among many well-intentioned citizens.

“I’ve had people pull me aside after I’ve given a talk and ask ‘well, doesn’t she want to be there? Doesn’t she enjoy it?’” Canary said. “And (this person) was gray-haired, a good pillar of the community, and it was all I could do not to jump out of my skin. I said ‘no, that is a performance, she is required to do it … if she does not satisfy that performance, she will be beaten and other things are done to her when she gets back. No, she doesn’t want to be there.’”

Evil flourishes under the cloak of ignorance – and education remains the strongest weapon against that ignorance. 

“We have programs for kids at 5-years-old about internet safety,” Canary said. “We don’t want to scare the heck out of them …(but) we talk to parents: “Would you hand a perfectly good and amazing tool – a chainsaw – to a child?’ I don’t think so. But they do – and online devices and smart phones are just as dangerous.’”

The Internet is still very new, and even now, the level of impact it has had on the generations raised in its company remains unknown.

“We don’t even know the full implications and all that has gone on since the Internet has been in existence and certainly over the last 20 years,” Canary said.

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