There is no better tool for predators than the Internet, says Nola Brantly, executive director of the Oakland-based Motivating Inspiring Serving and Supporting Sexually Exploited Youth, Inc. (misssey.org), an organization providing counseling to trafficked children. Here she describes how pimps use the Web to groom and sell young girls and offers ways you can help in your community:
When we were growing up, parents felt children were vulnerable when they were in the streets. You didn't worry about them so much when they were at home. But the computer has changed all that. Now the predator is in your child's bedroom, talking to her for hours, getting inside her head, all while you're asleep. this might go on for months. by the time parents catch wind of it, they can't tell that child, "You don't know this person." As far as that child is concerned she has a full relationship and the parent is the one who doesn't get it. About a quarter of the girls we see at MISSSEY were groomed online. Some met their predators on a social network site like Myspace; others first met him in a public space, like a mall, and then the relationship developed online.
People look to law enforcement to catch predators, but the underground nature of the sex industry makes it near impossible for police to combat this on their own. Consider: You have a white van parked in a lot. Inside is a trafficker, a 12-year-old girl, a laptop computer, a digital camera and a cell phone. The trafficker takes nude pictures of the girl, puts them on craigslist, and within hours men are turning up to that van to have sex with that girl. the girl has never left the van and the van never left the parking lot. This crime exists in the shadows. We can't monitor our children 24 hours a day. The best thing you can do is to make sure they are aware of the dangers. They need to know that the 16-year-old boy they met online may in fact be a 40-year-old man. Remind them never to give out their address or the name of their school or agree to meet anyone in person, even in a public space. Parents should be aware of who is calling their child's cell phone. They also need to remind children and teens never to take rides from strangers. A common thread with many girls who've been exploited is that at some point they got into a car with someone they didn't know.
People can get involved with their faith-based organizations to help increase sensitivity toward children who've been trafficked. We need to support agencies that provide services for exploited children and to advocate for legislative change to ensure stiffer penalties for predators. Most of all, we need to make sure the children are treated as victims, free of criminalization.
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