The Kansas City area has been identified as a hotbed for human traffickers with both victims in transit and as a destination, an expert told a group of law enforcement officers this month. And police officers are on the front lines of helping identify victims.
Lenexa hosted Opal Singleton, president and chief executive officer of Million Kids, an anti-trafficking organization working to raise awareness in California and nationwide, to present a workshop on the signs of sex trafficking and how to prevent it.
Singleton’s three-hour crash course in anti-trafficking came a month after a Minnesota man was charged in Johnson County with two counts of rape for allegedly having sex with a 13-year-old Lenexa girl. While the presentation was open to the public, her focus was on training first responders to identify signs of trafficking.
How trafficking happens
Locally, traffickers in the Kansas City area operate through gangs and recruitment of victims on social media, Singleton said.
Singleton provided nationwide statistics that show foster children (60 percent of foster children become involved in commercial sex); homeless minors and runaway children; pregnant teenagers; children from broken or unstable homes; and children in “regular” home settings can all become victims of sex trafficking and the commercial sex industry.
“But it can be anybody who is talking to strangers on the internet because you get a fantasy relationship going; you don’t think about this, but when you get on the internet, you feel like you can do about anything,” Singleton said. “You start meeting somebody on the internet, they give you a little bit of information, you fall in love, you make up a fantasy and the next thing you know, you’re sneaking out to meet up with them.”
In fact, social media is how the Lenexa girl’s case occurred, Singleton added.
Predators access children on social media sites such as Kik Messenger, SnapChat, Omegle, Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, LiveMe and even online gaming chatrooms through massive multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs) such as Fortnite, Minecraft, Clash of the Clans, World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto.
Once they access young victims, predators will “groom” them for trafficking situations by luring them into an illusion of comfort and friendship. After that, victims can be recruited and exploited.
How to prevent and identify trafficking
Singleton said parents will often notice a change in behavior, such as a change in dress style, schedule or sleep patterns, when someone is being groomed for trafficking. Young victims may miss school or meals. They might get new gifts that someone else is paying for.
All of the signs may show that the young family member is being controlled.
Out in public, it’s much more difficult to recognize signs, Singleton said.
“It’s very difficult to do a case just by having a stranger report the fact somebody’s suspicious,” she said. “There isn’t a lot you can do about that. You might be able to get a license plate or something like that, but this isn’t the kind of thing where somebody is beating up somebody and you can call the police right that minute.
“Just because somebody’s dressed provocatively and you don’t like the way he’s treating her is not a crime. These are large-scale rings that take a long time to develop.”
If you or someone you know is a victim of sex trafficking, call the national sex trafficking hotline number at 1 (888) 373-7888.