On any given day—in communities across the nation—thousands of children are being victimized by sex traffickers.
In 2022, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) received 31.9 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation—up from 29.3 million reports in 2021 and 21.7 million in 2020. NCEMC is a national nonprofit founded in 1984 by John and Revé Walsh, whose son Adam, 6, was abducted from a department store in Florida in 1981. The boy was later found murdered.
Many are unaware that child sex trafficking is a growing problem in the United States, regarding it as an issue occurring in other countries. But the reality is that this problem happens every day—close to home—in big cities, small towns, and rural areas in every state.
And it could be happening right next door.
Children at Risk
Child sex trafficking is the “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a minor for the purpose of a commercial sex act,” according to federal law.
“No child is immune to becoming a victim of child sex trafficking, regardless of the child’s race, age, socioeconomic status, or location, and every child involved in this form of commercial sexual exploitation is a victim.”
The majority of missing child reports involve children who run away from home, putting them at a high risk of falling prey to sex traffickers, Staca Shehan, vice president of analytical services at NCEMC, told The Epoch Times in an interview.
Last year, there were 359,094 entries for missing children entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC). In 2021, there were 337,195 total entries. The number of entries represents the number of reports, meaning a child who runs away multiple times in that year could be recorded multiple times.
In 2022, NCEMC assisted law enforcement, families, and child welfare with 27,644 missing children cases.
One in six runaways who were reported missing were likely victims of child sex trafficking, according to data collected by the organization.
“The numbers that we have remained consistent the past few years,” Shehan said. “One in six of the more than 25,000 cases of children reported missing to the national center in 2022, who had run away, were likely victims of child sex trafficking.
Children living in group homes or those who have been part of the child welfare system are “extremely” susceptible to recruitment by traffickers, Shehan said.
“Traffickers have been known to find where the local group home is and hang out outside, Shehan said. “[They’re] looking to engage and start conversations and start to recruit kids for victimization through trafficking.”
Social media, online gaming sites, and other seemingly innocuous websites are frequently used by perpetrators for recruiting.
“[The child] is playing a video game and meets somebody on that game,” Katia Gonzalez of Alliance for Children in Tarrant County told The Epoch Times. “They’re engaging on that site, and that person asks them to switch to a more dangerous site like Snapchat.”
Messages on Snapchat disappear after 24 hours, making it difficult to track your child’s activity, Gonzalez explained.
She said the adult would often say things like, “I really have a great time with you” as a way of building a relationship with the child and gaining their trust.
Many times, children do not realize that they have been exploited because they trusted the adult who victimized them, Gonzalez said, adding that parents should take notice if their child suddenly has money or things they did not buy for them or they become secretive.
Other risk factors include youth who have a history of mental health issues, drug use, sexual abuse, low self-esteem, poor academics, and minimal social support, according to the National Center of Safe Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE).
A 15-year-old girl in Arizona went to a high school football game where she “met a friendly 20-year-old woman,” a trafficking researcher wrote on the NCSSLE website. They began chatting, and soon the woman ran across the street to buy the teen girl a cell phone. But the gift came with a catch.
“The girl would need to repay the newly acquired debt by giving men ‘massages in motel rooms.”
Many times, human smuggling and sex trafficking go hand in hand, DPS Sgt. Steven Blanco told The Epoch Times, adding that children coming into the U.S. alone are at great risk for child sex trafficking recruiters.
“Research has shown that there’s a lot of unaccompanied minors coming across the border, and once they are in the United States after being smuggled in, where they go throughout the country is very hard to track,” Blanco said, adding that these youth are vulnerable to recruiters because they are alone and have no money.
It is difficult to know for certain how many children are being victimized in the U.S.
“The unfortunate reality is, I don’t know of anyone who has that statistic,” Shehan said. “I don’t know of any organization, [or] anything that has the nationwide total of children being victimized through trafficking. And that’s why we started to track it with the missing child cases to put out at least a trend from what we’re seeing.”
Shehan said she believes the numbers are “much higher” because there are four forms of child sex trafficking.
Forms of Child Sex Trafficking
There are four forms of child sex trafficking, Shehan explained.
The first form is pimp-controlled trafficking. The trafficker develops an intentional relationship with the child and uses it as leverage for exploitation.
“We’ve learned from survivors of child sex trafficking that their traffickers would send them home at night or back to their group home,” Shehan said, adding they may have multiple cell phones or apps to provide access to multiple phone numbers making it difficult for law enforcement to track.
Another type is gang-controlled trafficking, where the child is being recruited, controlled, and sold by a gang member or the organization as a whole as a means of making money, Sheehan explained.
The third form is familial trafficking. The child attends school and lives in the home with their parents or guardians, but they are being controlled and sold by a family member, or someone the child believes is a relative.
The last form is buyer-perpetrated trafficking, where the buyer exploits the child’s survival needs.
“It’s a buyer who’s directly exploiting that child’s vulnerabilities,” Shehan said. “A missing child who runs away doesn’t necessarily have their birth certificate or identification, something they would need to get a job.”
Without a job, the child has no money for food, shelter, or clothing.
“So, buyers will take advantage of that and offer to either let them stay with them in exchange for sex” or offer food or money to the child, Shehan continued.
Blanco said sex trafficking is a problem that requires everyone’s attention and everyone’s action.
“If you see something, say something. If you’re a victim, or you believe someone is a victim, or you have knowledge of something you believe is suspicious, as far as human trafficking, child exploitation, child abuse or neglect, always reach out to local law enforcement,” Blanco said.
Human trafficking and human smuggling are sometimes considered interchangeable, but they are not the same.
“Smuggling is based on a consensual agreement between smuggler and client while trafficking us a result of fraud, force, or coercion by a suspect on a victim,” a Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office (TCSO) representative told The Epoch Times.
Many assume that victims are always trying to escape exploitation, but that is not always the case, according to the TCSO representative.
“Trafficking victims will not always self-identify or seek help. They are often too traumatized to reveal their victimization,” the TCSO representative said.
Movement from place to place is not required for trafficking to occur.
“Force, fraud, or coercion are the necessary elements, not movement,” he added.
Recent Sting Operations
Law enforcement agencies across the country set up sting operations to bust traffickers who prey on children.
In Texas, on May 17, the FBI-Beaumont office, along with local authorities in Beaumont, Texas, led an online solicitation investigation that led to the arrests of seven men in Beaumont, according to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.
The men are accused of seeking females and males, some underage, for sexual relations through online sex sites and phone apps, according to police.
All seven were charged with solicitation of prostitution, and three faced additional charges of solicitation of a minor.
Last month, in Florida, authorities in Hillsborough County arrested 32 men during an undercover operation to catch child predators, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in Tampa.
Among those arrested was a 31-year-old U.S. Air Force staff sergeant who thought he was meeting a 15-year-old girl at a hotel in Tampa.
Two suspects were arrested for their role in responding to a fictitious ad in which a father was selling sex with their “child,” according to the release.
A 58-year-old man is accused of negotiating with an undercover detective and paying to have sexual intercourse with a 14-year-old.
“The fact that these men were hoping to have sex with an innocent minor is beyond sickening,” Sheriff Chad Chronister said.
Also in April, a seminary-trained college professor in California was arrested for allegedly trying to arrange sex with a seven-year-old girl, who turned out to be a detective, according to the criminal complaint obtained by The Daily Beast (pdf).
The professor promised to bring the girl her favorite chocolate bar and an Ariel doll, a character in The Little Mermaid movie.
Another child sex sting operation in April led to 32 arrests in Indianapolis, Indiana, WXIN-TV reported.
Last August, the FBI worked with 200 state and local partners, as well as the NCEMC, to execute 391 sex-trafficking operations nationwide, according to the Department of Justice. The operation, dubbed “Operation Cross Country,” targeted child sex and human trafficking. During the two-week initiative, the FBI and its partners located 37 missing children and 84 minors who were victims of child sex trafficking.
Recent Child Recoveries
Earlier this month, Texas authorities recovered more than two dozen missing and exploited children in Midland and Ector Counties.
On May 9, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) Criminal Investigation Division conducted a multi-agency operation that led to the recovery of 30 children in the West Texas Permian Basin. The joint task force, which included local, state, and federal authorities, targeted suspected human traffickers in its effort to identify and locate children reported missing from the area.
“It is a big problem,” Blanco told The Epoch Times. “Many times, children run away for a variety of reasons, and once they’re out on the streets, they’re very vulnerable to individuals who would like to do harm to those children or use them as a means to make money.”
The victims, whose ages ranged from 13 to 17, were found in various locations across the two counties.
Last August, the FBI worked with 200 state and local partners, as well as the NCEMC, to execute 391 sex-trafficking operations nationwide, according to the Department of Justice. The operation, dubbed “Operation Cross Country,” targeted child sex and human trafficking.
During the two-week initiative, the FBI and its partners located 37 missing children and 84 minors who were victims of child sex trafficking. The average age of the victims was 15 years old, and the youngest was 11. Investigators also identified 85 suspects of child sexual exploitation and human trafficking during the investigation.
“Human trafficking is among the most heinous crimes the FBI encounters,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray in a press release. “Unfortunately, such crimes — against both adults and children — are far more common than most people realize.”
In May 2022, another multi-agency operation called “Operation Lost Souls” located 70 missing children, ages 10 to 17, many of whom were victims of child sex trafficking and physical and sexual abuse, according to Homeland Security Investigations.
Most of the children were recovered in West Texas, but some were found in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, as well as the state of Colorado and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
All of the experts The Epoch Times spoke to encouraged parents to talk to their children about the dangers of child sex trafficking. There are a number of apps parents can use to track their child’s location and monitor their online activity.
“The only way to combat human trafficking is as a community,” the TCSO representative said. “By coming together, we can send a strong message to our victims, letting them know they are not forgotten. We are fighting to find them and bring them justice.
“To the traffickers and those exploiting victims, we send a message, we see you and are coming for you.”