childhood sexual exploitation

Every Mom’s Worst Fear: How to Protect Your Children from Sexual Exploitation

child abuse.png

When moms learn of my work to prevent human trafficking, the conversation always turns to fear for their own children. They wonder, how do I protect my kids? They ask, what can I do to prevent this from happening? They assume multiple wrong things because they believe the stereotypes and what they’ve seen on TV.  And then they’re shocked when I explain how exploitation usually begins.

Perhaps this short list of ideas to protect kids in the 3 main stages of childhood will help you not only feel better, but make a proactive game plan for your family. However, this list is not a surefire abuse protectant nor is is meant to create any guilt or shame if and when your child is harmed. The unfortunate reality is that we can do every single "right" thing and evil is still present. I offer this merely as a primer to get past fear and paralysis and think prevention.

Under age 8:

1.  Use real terminology for your child’s private parts. Why? If they are disclosing to a teacher, counselor, coach, etc. and use confusing code (someone touched my ding dong or ate my cookie), how will the adult know what they are really hearing? We do not want their first attempt at seeking help to be dismissed because of misunderstanding.

2.  Listen to their hesitation, discomfort, or resistance when going to certain homes or seeing certain people. If they react atypically around someone, you need to notice and respond accordingly. Do not force them to sit on his lap or endure his tickling. Do not leave them alone in this situation until you fully understand what is going on and if you never do, then you never leave them alone in this situation!

3.  Help your child listen to their gut. Debrief experiences- good and bad- and give them language to describe feelings. “So, did you like meeting your new teacher? What about your new teacher made you feel good?” or “Oh, you felt funny? What did your teacher do that made you feel that way?” When they express a gut feeling about someone, do not dismiss it!

Ages 8-11:

1.  The sleep over stage. Consider implementing some strict boundaries around sleep overs or not allowing them at all. Certainly, consider who is allowed over and who your child is allowed to stay with, making sure this list is narrow. Keep doors open at all times. Turn off wifi and cable when you go to sleep if it is not already restricted. Ask the parents with whom you might allow your child to stay if they have similar boundaries in place. Make sure you know of older siblings, relatives, and other guests in the home. Once you feel comfortable with the plan, communicate clearly to your child and agree on the rules. Then, be prepared to constantly adjust!

2.  The stranger danger lie. By this age, most kids will roll their eyes about “not talking to strangers.” They know to not open the door to a stranger or talk to one on the street. Unfortunately, this does little to protect them from the real danger: people they know. 9 out of 10 sexual abuse cases result from familiar perpetrators. It is time to speak frankly about being safe around everyone.

3.  The risk of first exposure. The majority of kids are first exposed to porn at age 11. They accidentally see something on the side bar of You Tube or in a Google search and curiosity leads to more. Have you installed security measures on your internet and devices? Talk to your kids about your fear: once you see something you cannot unsee it. Tell them what porn is so they know it is bad for them when a friend shows them. Tell them it is as addictive as drugs and can impact their brain development. Watch this.

Ages 12-18:

1.  Love them with everything you have. Kids who know they are deeply loved and seriously protected have a stronger sense of self, even when the drama of teenage years overwhelm them. Communicate openly and frequently about everything. At age 12, they should know what your expectations and/or parameters are around dating. This is not a free for all. Tell them your hopes and rules around relationships and check in repeatedly.

2.  Monitor social media age appropriately. Watch this PSA on how normal it is for “cute 15-year olds” to actually be perpetrators. Talk with your kids about safety protocols with apps and create rules for what and with whom they share.

3.  Give them something bigger to live for. Get them involved in something meaningful where they can experience healthy relationships, another adult role model or mentor, and activities outside of themselves. Being a part of a positive community keeps them grounded and less likely to be targeted by those looking to exploit.

4.  Remind them over and over again that they are more than the relationships they have in their lives. Cast a vision for their future that aligns with who you see them becoming. Start making future plans with them. Dream with them. If they are dating, do not allow the relationship to consume them, isolate them, or change their personality. If this begins to happen, intervene immediately.

5.  If you know of past trauma or abuse, get your teen in counseling with someone they enjoy talking to. If you can find a group of other teens who have had similar experiences, do this too. If you can find a support group for parents of abuse survivors, join. Do not overlook or underestimate the power of healing to prevent future exploitation. Too many child sex abuse victims come to believe they are damaged or worse, to regain power they exploit themselves on their own terms.

At some point in this last stage, we need to focus on training rather than protecting. We need to equip our teens to notice suspicious people and train them to know how to act in a compromising situation. If you started early, hopefully they have learned to listen to their gut. Let us raise our kids to be people who notice and upon noticing, act.


Over-Sexualized Children: One Way to Stop the Sponge Effect


My friend’s daughter is in the 1st grade. Though they do not own a TV, she is already sporting a sexy sass and eying boys. The only real explanation is that she is mirroring what she sees at school. Kids are already talking about “dating.” Her class has a collective conscious that their sexuality is something to wield as a means of control, like Samantha’s nose twitch on Bewitched. (And I promise, it was already in reruns when I was a kid!)

In a meeting with a school counselor, I hear of another 1st grader. After he recently smacked a classmate’s butt, he wound up in her office. As she pursued the little boy and his reasoning, his attitude said “duh” everyone knows, while he verbalized, “It’s what girls deserve.”

Bottom line? Kids are sponges. They will absorb whatever is most frequently put before them, whether it’s domestic violence and machismo at home or over-sexualized peers in class. And the reality is that our seven-year olds are exposed to far more than we can prevent or control.

The same school counselor expressed her concern that her kids have to code-switch: shed what they know as normal from home when they come through school doors and vice versa. NPR hijacked this term from linguistics to broadly describe the “hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our own identities — sometimes within a single interaction.

My friend’s daughter has to code-switch everyday when she enters her classroom: Mom may say it’s not appropriate to “date” at age 7, but every single one of my girlfriends likes a boy and to be cool, I have to too. The butt-slapping 7-year old code-switches every time he returns home: Ms. Smith says girls don’t deserve to be treated like that, but my uncle and granddad and older brother treat all their girls that way, so what’s the deal? Can we truly expect children to switch so quickly, so effortlessly? Is it any wonder that these incidents are happening?

As adults, unless we raise children in an isolated bubble, they will absorb the rhetoric and narrative of those with whom they spend most of their time. And yet, if we don't expose them to the world, how can we teach them to respond in beautiful and honoring ways? How do we raise boys and girls to value themselves and others within their own selves, not to the manipulation, control, or degradation of the other?

I offered my friend one nugget of a suggestion, timidly, for my own kids are still in adolescence and I have no proof my hypothesis works.

But I’ve seen the Sponge Effect.

And to combat it, I’ve sought to raise my kids’ perspective above the daily drama of school politics, relational positioning, and cultural messaging. I’ve read them stories of girls living on the other side of the globe, forced to walk miles for water, marry at their age, or stay home from school because of hygiene issues. We’ve watched films about Jewish children smuggled out of ghettos or Vietnamese girls who bike for hours a day to attend school. I’ve opened their eyes to sacrifice, for sure. But more than that, I’ve opened their eyes to the bigger narrative of kids: past and present in every corner of the world. If we were all created in God's image, do we not all deserve to be valued in a way that is honoring to Him? Now, when one of them complains about the most recent school drama, I remind them that we all have something in common.

My goal is to locate my kids in a meta-narrative: Yes, I believe there are universal truths. Let us at least start with human dignity for all (and abolish butt-slapping because of the belief it’s what she deserves!) Perhaps then, we can agree to valuing ones self for one's self, not based on the arm one is attached to? Of course, there will be differences in opinion on sexuality, gender norms, and roles in relationships, but can we not agree to these basic truths? Children ought to learn to value themselves and others with dignity.

And that is worth absorbing.

What about you? What have you done to help curb the sponge effect?


When Fighting Trafficking = Hot Mess

Hot MessSometimes it all catches up to me. There are weeks when I crash. Emotionally, I get flooded. I cry and weep. I have nightmares. I get paranoid.

Each time I conclude a training on Domestic Human Trafficking, an audience member asks how I do it. Someone always asks how I sleep at night. And I say that sometimes I can't. Sometimes I don't. And I'm so thankful for those times.

Like last week.

On the heels of an intensely heavy month, an article came out in our paper that 6 minors had been recovered from sex trafficking from the Western National Stock Show (the super bowl of rodeos). The same evening PBS aired A Path Appears, an incredible documentary on domestic sex trafficking. Later that week another article published that 57 foster kids in our state are currently missing. And then the Super Bowl numbers were released...

And so it hit me anew that I'm not just making this stuff up! This is all real. Kids are being sexually exploited. And it crushes me. Just crushes me that we live in a society and in a time in which there's space for this level of exploitation. That we live in a space that raises over-sexualized youth that warps their sense of relational normalcy. That we live in a space in which money is exchanged for a kid's body! I am disgusted. And the sadness can be overwhelming.

So what happens to me in these times of intense feeling is that my sadness turns to fear. A day or two later, the nightmares begin. The paranoia grips me.

I had dropped my 11-year-old off at her basketball coach's dorm for a private coaching session and wandered around campus for an hour. When she was 5 minutes late and not answering her phone, I started to panic. What was I thinking? What if the sweet tiny freshman girl coach had a mean evil guy friend who was going to abuse my little girl? What if she was already gone? Handed off to a pimp and half way down the highway? I was a hot mess and already had tears dropping when she and the cute little coach rounded the corner. Hot mess.

That night I tossed and turned. A friend was spending the night. A friend I love and trust and have known for years. But I was a hot mess, right? I was in full paranoia. It was my week to freak out. So I couldn't sleep. Because what was that little noise? Was that the floorboard creaking? The one that creaks in front of the girls' room?

And friends, I just have to say... it is The fear and the sadness keep it real. It makes me stay emotionally connected. If I felt less, I would care less. And I can't care less. I can't. What is one week every now and then of being a hot mess compared to the living nightmare 27-35 million individuals suffer each day? What is my fear compared to the mother whose daughter went missing for two weeks last summer, sold nightly by a pimp, and recovered just before he drove her to another state?

In my moments of desperation, my prayer is this:

Lure Me Deep

Lord, lure me deep. Lure me into the places in which you have you walked. Lure me into the space in which you weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. Lure me into the darkness to join with you as light. Where there is courage untapped, give me faith to access it. Where there is strength unspent, give me cause to spend it. May I be filled with enough love and beauty and dreams that the risk is worth it. Lord, lure me deep.

And you, friend? Do you share my fears sometimes? My sadness? What do YOU do?