By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times
WASHINGTON, DC, May 16, 2012 – Last week, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell signed into legislation several bills aimed to combat human trafficking within the state. As a survivor of child trafficking, I was honored to be part of the bill signing ceremony at the Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria, VA. However, as an advocate for the SB 259/HB1188 bill, I am concerned about the future implementation of this legislation.
This bill, which was sponsored by Senator Adam Ebbin and Delegate Vivian E. Watts, requires the Board of Education and the Department of Social Services to provide awareness and training materials for local school divisions on human trafficking, including strategies to prevent trafficking of children. I’m told that passing the bill was the easy part. The hard part is ensuring its execution and impact.
To those appointed with this task, I implore you to understand that prevention strategies are paramount and must begin early.
I was 14 years old when I was trafficked. I had barely begun my summer vacation from eighth grade middle school when a man lured me away from home and forced me into prostitution. The day this man spotted me in the mall and pointed me out of a crowd of kids, he was looking for a girl just like me- a girl who was depressed, who had low self-esteem, and who lacked self-value.
Traffickers consider the pre-teen and early teen years to be prime picking seasons for girls and boys struggling with self-identity and self-confidence issues. If we are to outsmart traffickers who are preying on our children, we must initiate prevention strategies early on in elementary and intermediate school.
The most effective tactic to fighting traffickers is arming children with self-confidence, and the best way to boost a child’s self-confidence is to support them through the awkward, and sometimes painfully difficult, transitions of childhood and to help strengthen their self-identity. By doing this, a child will be less prone to manipulation and coercion by predators.
According to the CDC website (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), elementary school students begin a stage of development called “middle childhood” between the ages of 6 and 8. Middle childhood, they explain, is a time in which independence from family becomes more important as the child attends school, makes new friends, and discovers the larger world. The CDC states that “[t]his is a critical time for children to develop confidence in all areas of life, such as through friends, schoolwork, and sports.”
CDC’s website indicated that middle childhood continues into age 9 to 11 years, and it’s during this time that a child’s growing independence will be met with peer pressure. The CDC states, “[c]hildren who feel good about themselves are more able to resist negative peer pressure and make better choices for themselves.”
As an adult, I can trace back to elementary school the very moments in which the seeds of self-doubt were planted. From bullies to worrying over self-image, these seeds grew into a gaping loss of confidence and a crippling dependency for acceptance. By fourteen, I was the perfect victim; I lacked the self-esteem to stand up for myself, and I was unable to differentiate between exploitation and genuine friendship.
To those in charge of prevention strategies, I beseech you to start early and to create programs which will help children develop and maintain self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-identity.
For those in charge of awareness training and resources for teachers, FAIR Girls of Washington D.C. offers the following warning signs for potential child trafficking in students:
- A sudden withdrawal from friends or classmates
- Unexplained absences, particularly on Thursdays or Fridays
- A sudden shift in dress – particularly toward provocative or risqué clothing
- A new, much older boyfriend
- A growing occurrence for suddenly texting or wanting to step out of class to talk to someone
- A new, expensive phone and/or clothing that costs outside the student’s price range
- Talk of going “clubbing” or dancing
- Talk of travel or going somewhere outside of the city
FAIR Girls was created to empower girls in the U.S. and around the world who have been forgotten or exploited, or who are otherwise at-risk of not reaching their full potential. Through prevention education, compassionate care, and survivor-inclusive advocacy, FAIR Girls aims to create opportunities for girls to become confident, happy, and healthy. Co-founder, Andrea Powell, lists the following instructions for a teacher who suspects a potential trafficking situation:
- Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-3737-888 to report your concerns.
- Reach out to the student to ask if something is wrong at home. If the teacher shows real concern, a student will often open up.
- Educate students about human trafficking by inviting an organization like FAIR Girls or a trafficking survivor into the school to speak. For a list of survivor speakers, visit Survivor Strong.