By just saying hello, a human trafficker can know whether or not a young boy or girl is worth pursuing as a victim, an FBI analyst explained at a recent training session with 20 local health and social services employees. Social service caseworkers are often the ones closest to potential victims.
The hour-long sessions look at signals for at-risk youth, explain available tools and services for victims, and provide an opportunity for caseworkers and others involved in health and social services to discuss the issue.
“We started this relationship with the FBI because we were pretty sure we had these trafficking cases in the population we work with,” said Jacki Hoover, assistant deputy director at Office of Children, Youth and Families of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. “We felt that cases were not being identified because our staff didn’t really understand the broad definition of trafficking.”
The Justice Department estimates that each year 300,000 children are at risk for commercial sexual exploitation in the United States. Experts say that’s low. “It’s so hard to nail down an actual number,” said Anne Rackow of the Project to End Human Trafficking, a nonprofit group in Pittsburgh. “It is a crime hidden on purpose.”
In Pittsburgh, every minor identified as a sex trafficking victim turned up beforehand in the child welfare or juvenile justice system, many in foster care or in group homes, the FBI says. The youngest victim identified in Pittsburgh was 13. The average age of minors taken as sex trafficking victims ranged between 12 and 14, the Justice Department says. Children in social services tend to be the most vulnerable to sex trafficking, according to the FBI. Minors who are homeless, use drugs or have criminal records are also at high risk.
The FBI is aware that joining up with social service agencies, like the Department of Human Services in Pittsburgh, helps federal law enforcement uncover cases agents would have otherwise never found. “We’ve started a number of cases based on information from caseworkers and we never would have had those cases without them,” said an FBI analyst who asked not to be identified because the cases are sensitive. “There are kids out there who now have a chance. We need that bridge.”
The training in Pittsburgh focused heavily on runaway youth, a population the National Runaway Safeline estimates to include between 1.6 million and 2.8 million youths in the U.S. Gregory Troup, a caseworker with the local Human Services Department, is working with a young female who ran away from her group home for a week. When she returned, caseworkers discovered she had gotten involved in trafficking. “In a week’s time a trafficker found her and exploited her,” he said at the training session. “That’s all it took, less than a week.”
For social workers and FBI agents on the front lines, it’s personal. “Some of these victims, without us, they’d have nobody,” said the FBI analyst. “It’s a lot easier to put your head on the pillow when you’ve helped someone who gave up hope.”
Learn more at Elissa Nadworny’s Miami Herald article: FBI, social workers unite to attack sexual trafficking of children.