RIVERSIDE, Calif. A giggling group of high school girls shop for homecoming at the local mall. While the others head for the dressing rooms, one girl lags behind. Her father is unemployed, so she has no money. Besides, no one’s asked her for a date. She eyes an emerald green strapless gown while waiting for her friends.
From out of nowhere, a man in his mid-20s approaches. His words dripped with honey: “You are so beautiful; that dress would look gorgeous on you. Let me buy it for you.”
“Oh no,” she says, secretly flattered. “I couldn’t.”
“You really should be a model,” he insists. “Here’s my card.”
According to Opal Singleton, director of development for Million Kids, encounters like these often mark the beginning of a long-term grooming process leading to human trafficking. It’s as though, she said, some kids wear a billboard that makes them easy prey.
Easy access also plays a role. Parents, for instance, used to say, “Don’t take candy from strangers.” But now that candy can be found with cell phones, always within easy reach. Traffickerssometimes a friendly young womanwill lure girls with gifts, Singleton said.
“Parents want to watch for a change in their child’s financial activity because traffickers reel (their victims) in that way,” she said.
In doing so, parents need to exercise care, Singleton warned, saying that when parents express their concerns or try to restrict behavior, a girl might get angry and run into the arms of the very one who will enslave her. Once a teen crosses the threshold of being turned out into prostitution, the battle becomes far more fierce.
“That’s why I wrote ‘The Love Trap,’” Singleton said of the program used by Million Kids, a nonprofit formed in 2008 by Kerry Decker to combat trafficking in Southeast Asia. Million Kids soon became involved with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force. After training more than 800 government officials and 4,000-plus pastors, civic leaders, city personnel, corporations and public health officials on how to identify and report human trafficking and assist victims, Singleton said she realized that “trafficking in the U.S. is more diverse and brutal than in developing countries because gangs have developed teen prostitution into an industry.”
Using “The Love Trap,” Million Kids has already educated more than 2,000 individuals on how to understand “the sounds of a predator.”
“Recognizing the techniques, psychology, and methods they use to cultivate relationships with vulnerable young people” can help teens avoid modern-day slavery.
Broken homes a risk
Singleton said her research has revealed that though 40 percent of trafficking victims come from foster homes, another 40 percent come from homes in crisis. During the critical life-event years of 13 to 15, a family crisis such as a parent’s divorce, affair, unemployment or even the death of a beloved grandparent can make young people especially vulnerable. Their response to such painful events has the potential to change their lives forever. Traffickers respond to kids in crisis and use a variety of tricks to entrap them.
According to Singleton, their strategy includes the following:
• Love TrapThis “love” exploits rather than empowers.
• Internet TrapPredators access their victims using technology, then sell their services using niche marketing.
• Baby TrapWhen a pimp gets a girl pregnant, the hope of making enough money to support her baby keeps her imprisoned.
• Runaway TrapWithin 48 hours, at least 35 percent of the more than 1.6 million kids who run away each year engage in survival sex. That leads to rape, beatings and forced prostitution.
• Easy Money TrapMoney for casual sex is used as bait.
• Damaged Goods TrapPredators keep their victims enslaved by creating a mental prison.
Earlier this year, the Riverside Board of Supervisors chose Singleton to be one of three key speakers to hundreds of teen representatives from Riverside County schools. Even the boys paid close attention to this proprietary program because they, too, can be targets for traffickers. The interest was so intense on all levels that this fall Singleton said she’ll be presenting “The Love Trap” at several high schools in Riverside County.
Living Christ’s love
Churches that make teens their mission can make an even more substantial difference, Singleton said. Not only can informed church leaders increase awareness about how exploitation works, but they can also develop crisis intervention teams. Identifying families in crisis and offering their children family-oriented support and activities can help prevent shame-based behaviors. Establishing a teenager’s unique place within the family of God also establishes their value to Him. Providing a hurting child with a designated person to turn to, one who will listen and offer a place to diffuse, can dramatically diminish a potential runaway’s vulnerability. Some churches are even “adopting” foster youth who are aging out of the system in an effort to help them get established.
But before any of that can happen, churches must recognize the truth and severity of the problems, Singleton said. She’d especially like to see more men get involved.
“This is a men’s issue,” she said. “It has to do with the safety of their family and community.”
Businesspeople could also make a difference by subsidizing the training. Singleton said that with enough funding, she could recruit a couple of former victims to tell their stories as they take “The Love Trap” around the country.
“Teens telling teens the truth would have the greatest impact,” she said.
For more information see www.millionkids.org.