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Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.
Sunday March 01, 2020
by: Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.

Section: Inside Insight

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In this case, the school counselor didn’t immediately react, but later that day she had a sinking realization that she may have overheard potential child abuse/statutory rape and maybe even a case of human trafficking. She called the girl into her office to learn more. The school counselor was not looking to determine certainty as certainty isn’t required in this instance; she simply wanted more answers. Regardless of what she learned, she was going to call in a child abuse report, per the reasonable suspicion mandated reporting law.

The school counselor skillfully questioned Regina, who denied she was involved with a 30-year-old, but Regina’s answers seemed scripted, rehearsed and contradictory in detail. Regina refused to make eye contact, and her nonverbal behavior told a different story than her verbal denials. When the school counselor called in the report, she conveyed these less-tangible warning signs as well as more concrete information she knew about the child’s circumstances, which made the student more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Intangible warning signs are difficult to describe and are weak compared to tangibles such as bruises and admissions. However, as a trained observer and expert in human behavior, a school counselor’s suspicions should carry increased weight, and we cannot be afraid to provide these intangible warning signs even when they may sound weak. 

Even more concerning is the school counselor’s knowledge that this student was also a prime target for manipulation and exploitation into sex trafficking. A much-older boyfriend is a dangerous sign when coupled with the fact that this child was from a low-socioeconomic home, and the family often was homeless. Regina’s parental influences were limited and often nonexistent, meaning an older man could fill a parental figure void. Regina was needy for attention and often drove herself into social isolation from her peers. Therefore, it wasn’t a leap for the school counselor to worry this child might be involved with a 30-year-old who was grooming her for sex trafficking. 

In trying United States v. Kozminski (1988), which involved two mentally challenged men enslaved to work on a dairy farm, it became clear that better laws and support were needed to protect people and to prosecute human traffickers. January 2020 marked the 20th anniversary of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. There are two major categories of human trafficking: labor and commercial sex. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act defined sex trafficking as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion or in which the person committing the commercial sex act is under the age of 18. Federal law makes any minor under the age of 18 engaging in commercial sex a victim of sex trafficking, regardless of the presence of force, fraud or coercion (National Human Trafficking Hotline, 2020). 

It is estimated that 25 million people are currently being abused at the hands of commercial human traffickers. In 2018, the National Human Trafficking Hotline identified more than 23,000 human trafficking victims in the United States. Of these victims, 65% were women, and one in five were children. Traffickers make $150 billion annually, second only to the drug trade in illegal revenue. 

Sex trafficking is not limited to race, gender or socioeconomic status; however, some demographics are more often represented. Higher rates of victimization are found in children of color, children of poverty, sexual minorities, victims of childhood trauma and those who are socially isolated. Children whose home life is unstable are more susceptible to the grooming process. Human traffickers understand the risk factor of not having a strong parental influence, and they use this knowledge to prey on potential victims who:
  • Are troubled youth looking for a sense of belonging
  • Receive insufficient affection in the home
  • Lack supervision in the home
  • Lack family structure
  • Experience physical or sexual abuse in the home
  • Have drugs or alcohol in the home
  • Are involved in the juvenile justice system
  • Are in foster care
Victims are found in many different ways, but some common venues are parties, school events and malls. In one such case a lonely, socially awkward teenage girl was recruited by her fellow classmate, a savvy, well-dressed student she looked up to. Her newfound “friend” asked her to a party, drove her a long distance away to the party and plied her with drinks. Then, instead of driving her back to her father’s house, drove her to a strip club, handed her a bikini and demanded she dance at the strip club to earn the $600 she now owed for gas and drinks. The carefully orchestrated plan was a downward spiral into prostitution. In another case, a Texas high school student received $20 for every $100 his recruited peers-turned-victims earned while being sex trafficked. 

Sex Trafficking Signs
According to National Human Trafficking Hotline and the Polaris Project, educators should recognize the primary signs of human trafficking. A student:
  • Doesn’t attend school regularly, has unexplained absences and/or is 
  • considered a truant
  • Runs away from home regularly
  • Talks about frequent travel to 
  • other cities
  • Has bruises or other physical trauma, is withdrawn and seems depressed or afraid
  • Doesn’t seem to have control over her/his own schedule or identification documents
  • Shows signs of poor hygiene, 
  • malnourishment and/or fatigue
  • Shows signs of substance abuse or addiction
  • Demonstrates a sudden change in clothing, behavior or has expensive items a child usually cannot afford
  • Makes references to sexual situations that are unusual for a child of that age
  • Has a “boyfriend” who is noticeably older (10+ years)
  • Uses language that is beyond his/her normal age or terms that are used in the commercial sex industry, engages in promiscuous behavior and may be labeled “fast” by peers
  • Is fearful, anxious, depressed, 
  • submissive, tense or nervous/paranoid
  • Shows signs of physical and/or 
  • sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture
  • Is frequently monitored
  • Is not allowed or able to speak for himself/herself (a third party may insist on being present and/or translating)
The National Human Trafficking Hot-line cautions that this list is not exhaustive, represents only a selection of possible indicators, and no one indicator should be considered in isolation but in context. Cultural differences should also be considered.

As educators we spend a considerable percentage of our students’ lives with them and are in a good position to notice warning signs and to practice preventive education. As a school counselor, what might you have done with a student claiming to have a 30-year-old boyfriend? Some suggestions or techniques might include:

Gather information: Research the student’s attendance patterns, grades, teachers’ observations and transiency history. A review of the educational records and discussions with people in a position to observe the student might provide clues that can be probed. 

Meet with the student: Set up a meeting with the student and listen carefully and intently, observing all the nonverbal cues. General school-related questions may help pave the way into questions about the warning signs. Some possible questions might include: How are you doing? How are your classes? I am worried about your attendance of late. Your grades are dropping; can you tell me what has changed? You seem tired and distracted lately. Can you tell me why? I am worried about you. You’re not your usual bubbly self. Can you tell me why? Tell me about your boyfriend. When did you see him last? What activities do you do together? What did you do last weekend together? Where does he live? Do you visit him at his place? Who else is at his place when you usually go there? Have your parents met him? What do your parents say about him? You seem reluctant to talk to me about your boyfriend. Have you been warned not to talk about him? You seem to be avoiding telling me everything. What am I missing? 

Follow protocol: If your school district has a protocol, you must follow it. Some protocols send the school counselor immediately to an administrator and/or the student resource officer. Beyond a school district’s protocol there is not a script. Call child protective services, who will guide you. You will probably be instructed to call the police if it is an emergency. 

This is not intended to be a blueprint for how to interact with a student you suspect may be a victim of human trafficking. There is no one size fits all, but as a minimum what was overheard cannot be ignored. It is not the school counselor’s job to fully investigate, but you are allowed to ask questions to learn more. You have a legal imperative to follow up the seemingly offhand comment Regina made to her friend, and in context you will determine what, if any, questions you should ask or if you should go right to the child abuse authorities or sheriff’s office. In almost every circumstance, you would also talk to your administrator. 

Carolyn Stone, Ed.D., is a professor at the University of North Florida and chair of ASCA’s Ethics Committee. Contact the author for references in this article. To submit your questions for a future column, e-mail them to ethics@schoolcounselor.org.
U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline
(888) 373-7888

Polaris Project

How to Talk About Human Trafficking with Children and Adolescents by Baylor University School of Education