“We have to get away from the stereotype of the creepy old dude somewhere on the Internet who goes and snatches a child,” Wilkins said. “It can happen in so many different ways.”
There are many situations that can lead to the victimization of a person at the hands of a trafficker. According to Wilkins, it is often hard to differentiate victims of human sex trafficking from other people, because except in extreme cases, they lead lives very similar to anyone else. However, there are certain signs that could hint at a person being involved with trafficking.
“You might have someone that’s suddenly missing class a lot, or absent from schools on random days,” Jessica Lydon, Administrative Assistant of the Covering House, said. “Isolating from friend groups, having grades suddenly drop. These are basically your normal signs that something has occurred.”
Other signs include people suddenly coming into possession into expensive, brand-name goods they would not normally be able to afford and changes to someone’s social media accounts.
The ways people enter into the world of trafficking vary from young boys and girls getting picked up off the street to dysfunctional romances. According to Lydon, for more than 85 percent of the victims that come through the Covering House, trafficking began with a seemingly innocent relationship.
“We had one girl’s boyfriend say, ‘I don’t have enough money to pay off my debts, but here’s my girlfriend’s address, you can go to her house and get my payment for what I owe you in whatever way you want,’” Lydon said. “He’s not a traditional pimp in this situation, but it’s still trafficking.”
Other victims are sold by their parents to traffickers in exchange for drugs or other payment, a practice reminiscent of trafficking elsewhere in the world.
“In most other countries in the world, it’s your family members that traffick you, your parents or a member of your community trafficks you, because of the tremendous amount of poverty in your community,” Gonzalez said. “That happens in America – that family members sell their children – but it’s not the norm.”
Although not as common as other forms of trafficking, the stereotypical scenario of children getting snatched off the streets is still very relevant in St. Louis. This aspect is worsened by the city’s high number of child runaways who leave home as a response to problems in their lives.
Photo by Aaron Zoll.
“A lot of kids get into sex trafficking because of already being a runner. Maybe they ran and ended up in having to participate in some kind of survival sex that turned into trafficking. Or maybe they keep falling back into trafficking because of the running,” Lydon said. “What we deal with is a lot of inability to think clearly because of all the emotional trauma, and for them, running becomes something that is like a habit, becomes their initial response.”
The problem of sex trafficking is not just perpetuated by male pimps, as is a common misconception.
“One of our young ladies was trafficked by another woman, just in building a friendship,” Wilkins said. “That friendship was exploited.”
Human trafficking victims are often first recognized at local hospitals. Victims will occasionally seek medical care on their own; however, these victims are typically accompanied by the men that are pandering to them to ensure they do not escape.
“We had one person who came in. It was her third visit in the week. She was a young female,” Melissa Kroll, Emergency Medical Services physician at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, said. “She was in a sex trafficking ring, and she didn’t want to be there anymore. She was not happy where she was.”
The young woman, who was only in her early 20s, went directly to Kroll for help. According to Kroll, the woman was not just running from her procurer, but also the law.
“She was like, ‘I’m being used. I don’t want this. Because I’d been forced to sell myself, there are prostitution charges against me. I missed my court date. My captor wouldn’t let me make it. So I have warrants out for my arrest, am I gonna be arrested?’” Kroll said. “I couldn’t promise she wouldn’t be arrested. She left the emergency department before we were able to get her help. She just disappeared.”
Unfortunately for medical care providers, these victims are not always upfront with their distress. It often takes a surplus of potential indicators for the doctors to confront the patient.
“We had one that didn’t speak English. He came in and gave his birth date that made him 16. We were trying to contact his parents who were in Mexico,” Kroll said. “He didn’t have a phone number to his parents. What 16-year-old doesn’t have a phone number to their parents?”
The teenager was accompanied by another man who was translating for him. According to Kroll, the 16-year-old appeared to be physically abused.
“This poor kid had a very large cut on his face. We had to take care of the cut. The number one priority is to take care of the health of the person in front of you. We took care of that. Then we said, ‘because you’re a kid, we have to get permission to treat you.’ And then he [gave us] a new birth date,” Kroll said. “[He said], ‘they didn’t give my date of birth right. They misheard me.’ When he gave the new date of birth he was 20 so we could treat him.”
Kroll was decidedly suspicious of his story. After further investigation by Kroll and her colleagues, it became apparent that the young boy was being trafficked.
According to Kroll, the hospital should not overwhelm and intimidate these victims.
“Our only hope is that every time they come into the hospital, they recognize that the hospital is a safe place,” she said. “That any point in time they decide they want to leave [trafficking], they have a safe place to go to.”
Although the new homes for the victims while encompassed by the world of trafficking are seemingly harrowing and unpleasant, to the victims their new residence can be quite the opposite.
“A lot of these victims come from very dangerous locations, [to] a lot of these victims, the place that they are currently living is not as bad as the place that they came from. These are kids that you would hope have a family somewhere,” Kroll said. “But a lot of these kids, who ended [up] in human trafficking have been through the foster system or are runaways because their home environment is not good. Their biggest fear is getting sent back home.”
When the children are finally able to escape trafficking, their first concern is not getting pulled back into trafficking. Instead, it is of being pushed back to their original home.
“When we think of human trafficking, we think of it as a very much in our faces, where we can look at it and say, ‘oh yeah, that’s what happening,’” Powell-Walker said. “But it doesn’t necessarily work like that. There are so many ways it could happen, and it can happen to anyone.”