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(Editor’s note: This story is the fourth of a series that focuses on sexual abuse and child sex trafficking in the local community and how to help in the fight against it.)

Child trafficking is a problem, and child abuse happens anywhere. It may be hard to see how one individual can help, particularly with the way false information tends to go viral more quickly than accurate information.

A story on USAToday.com called “Fact check: Mask-wearing not connected to child trafficking,” shared some information from various trafficking experts around the country. These focused on the likelihood of a stranger kidnapping children for the purpose of sex trafficking.

“On any given day, pre-COVID, numerous myths and misconceptions about human trafficking abound. However, the volume on this misinformation has increased significantly during the pandemic,” said Bridgette Carr, an anti-trafficking expert and professor at the University of Michigan School of Law. “This misinformation harms victims and sends resources to the wrong places.”

Jo Lembo, director of Faith Initiatives & National Outreach for Shared Hope International, explained that one avenue for information gathering and sharing the right information is to become a “Weekend Warrior.” This is a program Shared Hope International offers to provide information in manageable segments, on a weekly basis.

“The Weekend Warriors receive free downloads of tools and resources that help even the busiest of people to fight child sex trafficking by subscribing at https://sharedhope.org/what-we-do/prevent/awareness/weekendwarrior/ to receive awareness posters, educational videos, legislation action guides, parental tips to keep kids safe online and more,” Lembo said. “We encourage the weekend warriors to simply take the time to share the tools with their networks to continue educating people on what domestic minor sex trafficking looks like, who’s vulnerable and why, and what we can do about it.”

Shared Hope International also offers training to become an advocate, carrying information to others in the community through tables set up at community events or speaking to students or parents.

Training (including webinars and online courses) focuses on the best way to equip everyone from industry professionals, to health care workers, to concerned citizens to be better advocates for sexually exploited youth. Trained volunteers who complete the training program are provided tools they need to educate their communities and prevent sex trafficking.

“If children knew the signs of someone trying to recruit them, they would be safer. Parents can build internal guard rails in their kids by having ongoing conversations with them as soon as they learn how to use the internet,” Lembo said. “Free resources are available at https://sharedhope.org/ that include scripts for starting that conversation.”

When asked to narrow down the important messages for parents and guardians who have children accessing the Internet, Lembo said, “If I could just say two things to someone who wants to protect a kid online, it would be:

— Be sure your child knows that the person on the other side of the screen may not be safe, so don’t share your personal information (where you live, go to school or your daily routine)

— Teach your child it’s okay to be rude to a nice person on the internet if they are asking for information about you and you don’t know them. Tell them NO and show your safe adult their messages.”

Learn and share to help in the struggle

Information from Sharedhope.org notes that being informed makes the difference in helping to fight minor sex trafficking. An article on the site states “If the public is misinformed about what child sex trafficking typically looks like in the United States, they might not be able to recognize it when they come across children who are being trafficked.

“For instance, many of these popular conspiracy theories are based on the false assumption that the typical victim of child sex trafficking in the United States has been kidnapped from a foreign country and is being kept in chains in the underground bunker of a powerful, wealthy individual.”

Possible paths for those who want to do their part to fight trafficking:

— Become educated on signs of trafficking rather than viral hoaxes.

While it may seem helpful and important to share the “so-and-so and her children were followed around Target/Pier One/Walmart” stories, the sad truth is children are far more vulnerable at home and online than visiting a store with a parent. Stories like Wayfair and the US Postal Service putting children at risk are not the area to focus on. Instead, understand that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has seen a 93% increase in online enticement reports targeting kids between January and June of this year.

Sharing the story of a mother and children at risk in a store may have others focusing on that potential risk and missing what is really happening at home through social media or a popular video game their child plays.

— Pay attention to those around you, people you interact with for school reasons or see in a public place, or children who interact with your children.

Signs of trafficking may include: fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid behavior, particularly at the mention of law enforcement; signs of substance use or addiction; signs of poor hygiene, malnourishment, and/or fatigue; signs of physical restraint, confinement or abuse; having few or no personal possessions; frequent monitoring by another individual; or if the person is not allowed or able to speak for themselves (a third party may insist on being present).

— Educate children about potential harms that come with the use of technology; stay involved with both your use and your children’s use of technology and keep conversations open and ongoing in regard to the topic of technology.

— Sign the Defenders Pledge: The Defenders Pledge, found at https://sharedhope.org/takeaction/become-a-defender/, is designed to engage men in bringing dignity, honor, and respect to sexually exploited individuals. The goal of the pledge is to elevate voices of victims and survivors, hold other men accountable, and work to end the demand for this destructive market.