One of Jeffrey Epstein’s assault survivors, Teresa Helm, in her role as an advocate for survivors of sexual assault and sex trafficking, educates people about tactics traffickers use to groom victims. She said that, having taken advantage of the pandemic, the internet has become the number one channel predators use to coerce children into the sex trade.
“It is happening more so online than anywhere, currently, and it has hugely increased since COVID,” Helm told host of American Thought Leaders Jan Jekielek in a Feb. 14 interview.
“Children are spending at minimum 50 percent more time online, which then gives predators even that much more time to be a predator and to target children.”
“The social isolation, the mental health challenges that our children are facing because of the pandemic, everything is compounding these layers, that is increasing the vulnerability for our children online,” she said.
According to the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2021, “The U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported a 98.66 percent increase in online enticement reports between January and September 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, and reports to their CyberTipline doubled to 1.6 million.”
Helm, while a massage therapy student, was groomed by Epstein’s helpers and later invited to apply for a job as a traveling massage therapist—for Ghislaine Maxwell. For almost two decades, she did not tell anyone about being assaulted by Epstein in his New York home during her interview.
“This is not a choice for them. They’re not choosing this. They have been manipulated, coerced, forced into doing this,” Helm said of children who are forced to prostitute themselves.
Helm works to end sex trafficking, particularly child trafficking, and tries to educate people about the tactics used by predators to groom and trap victims. She said children enjoy using many of the online chat rooms to assuage their loneliness, where predators are waiting to groom them.
“So, then they target children, they start to ask questions. And it’s pretty quick, to where if a child engages relatively quickly or easily, then … a predator knows that that’s a child they can work on,” said Helm.
“And there are the similarities in the grooming process where the predator will ask: “How old are you? Oh, really? I’m that old too. Where are you from? Oh, I know where that’s at. What do you like? Oh, I like that stuff too. What’s your favorite food? Oh, that’s my favorite food as well. What’s your name? Oh, I have a really good friend with that same name,” continued Helm.
Helm said she understands the grooming process because she was groomed by two of Epstein’s associates, who did what all predators do: They targeted her at her university, gained her trust, met her needs, isolated her, and then exploited her.
“I walked myself to the home of the man that was going to abuse me. I walked myself to a predator’s home. And I was not forced to go there. … And why was I so comfortable and confident and excited to walk myself there? And that was because each of those women had very successfully, very masterfully manipulated me and groomed me into thinking that it was a safe and healthy environment for me to go to,” said Helm.
Helm said traffickers are using the mental health challenges children are facing—due to being isolated—to befriend, manipulate, and extract personal information and photos, all in an effort to control them.
“This predator is then taking these photos and uploading them to various sites and exploiting and making money off of these photos, and the child doesn’t know it. But then the predator wants more photos, and that’s where the blackmail starts, saying, ‘If you don’t give me more, I know where you live,’” said Helm.
“Then there’s this cycle of exploitation. And this is happening more online. Online is currently the number one place that a child is recruited, and currently the number one place that they’re being exploited,” said Helm.
According to DHS project iGuardian, there are commons signs that a child may be being groomed by an online predator, including receiving gifts through the mail, making calls to unknown numbers, turning away from friends and family, spending too much time online, and hiding their screens when you come in the room.
Helm said children being trafficked from their schools is also of serious concern and needs to be dealt with by enacting stricter laws.
“In the state of Texas, there’s been a recent bipartisan-supported bill passed, the No Trafficking Zone Act. … It states that if anyone, if a trafficker tries to target a child or a teen on school grounds or within 600 feet of the premises of school functions for the purposes of trafficking, it’s a first-degree felony charge. And that’s an incredible win,” said Helm.
“That’s an incredible bill and legislation victory for sure. … That’s the standard, that’s what it should be, these should be fundamental standards,” Helm said, referring to the fact that each of the 50 states has a different standard for prosecuting sex traffickers. Many states treat first-time buying of sex as a misdemeanor.
A 2015 Congressional Research Services report states: “The exact number of child victims of sex trafficking in the United States is unknown because of challenges in defining the population and varying methodologies used to arrive at estimates.