Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on human trafficking. Part two will be published in Tuesday’s issue of The Daily Press.

Some local groups are seeking to draw attention to human trafficking of children.

“We are trying to get the word out in the community,” said Keisha Walls, who is an Advocate with Operation Underground Railroad. “It’s a local pandemic.”

Walls and fellow concerned citizens have been out at McDonald’s at the junction of Highways 49 and 412, with signs and placards proclaiming “#savethechildren” and “#wearethevoice.”

According to its website, Operation Underground Railroad (OUR) seeks to pave the way for permanent eradication of child sex trafficking through coordinated rescue and recovery planning. In the past six years of its existence, OUR says it has rescued 3,800 victims and assisted in the arrests of more than 2,100 traffickers around the world. The partners it has empowered have collectively helped rescue the lives of more than 10,000 survivors who had been enslaved, exploited or at risk.

But not all children – defined as those younger than 18 – that are being trafficked are “missing,” according to Megan Brown of Hope Found. “It’s important to remember that [traffickers] target vulnerable populations,” Brown said. “These are kids in foster care, homeless, runaways and kids whose parents aren’t ‘there’ for them – that don’t pay any attention to them.”

So, apart from those kids that are kidnapped outright, Brown said the traffickers seek out such children on social media like Facebook or may even already be known to their targets. “People think it’s [just] kids that have been kidnapped,” she said, “but it’s often people they know [who target them], like family members, a boyfriend – supposed boyfriend – or someone they have met on social media.”

Brown noted that about 75 percent of those trafficked are women and girls. Their average age, she said, is 12 to 14 years old. Traffickers of this type seek to gain the trust of their targets, grooming them for eventual sexual exploitation.

Brown said there are “red flag” warning signs that can indicate the given child is being trafficked. “For example, they may start to dress provocatively,” she said, “or seem to be hyper-sexualized.” Or maybe the child has expensive items, well beyond her ability to buy on her own. “They may say, ‘oh, my boyfriend got it for me,’” Brown said, “and that should be a warning: where does the boyfriend get that kind of money?”

According to Operation Underground Railroad’s Facebook page, the recruitment of children into human trafficking – especially sex trafficking – is a five-step process:

First, the trafficker chooses targets from among kids in the vulnerable populations as described by Brown. In the case of convicted child sex trafficker Justin Testani of Orange City, Fla., for example, he used Instagram and SnapChat to contact multiple young girls aged 10-13, posing as a young teenage girl who did modeling for a teen lingerie brand.

Second, the trafficker grooms his or her targets by building up a measure of trust between trafficker and target. In Testani’s case, he persuaded numerous victims to send revealing photos of themselves.

Third, once the trap is set, the trafficker springs it, using the photos to blackmail the victim into doing what s/he demands. Testani, for example, threatened to disseminate the photos or publicly humiliate the victims if they did not cooperate.

Fourth, the trafficker continues to use what s/he has as leverage for exploitation or extortion. In Testani’s case, he would also threaten the victims themselves or threaten to harm their family members with kidnapping, rape or murder to coerce images or videos of the victims engaged in explicit sexual conduct.

And fifth, the trafficker uses what has been provided as a means to maintain control. In the case of Testani, he used threats to coerce passwords for social media accounts from the victims. Once that was done, he used those accounts to reach out to the friends of the original victims, to begin the process anew.

Justin Testani pleaded guilty to multiple charges of such “sextortion” on Feb. 6, 2020 and on Aug. 6 was sentenced to 60 years in prison.

Anyone wishing more information about Operation Underground Railroad may contact Walls at (870) 335-6383. Anyone wishing more information about Hope Found may call Brown at (870) 761-1098.

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