Special Education & Sex Trafficking Information for
Maricopa County Sex Trafficking Collaborative—Analysis of Three-Years of Cases
“Initially in 2017, 93.8% of the [identified sex trafficking] victims were in the custody of the Arizona Department of Child Safety (AZDCS). That has since decreased to 59% in 2020. Parent/guardian [custody of the identified sex trafficking victims] has increased from 6.3% in 2017 to 38.1% in 2020.”
It can be hard to understand what sex trafficking and sexual exploitation is and how it may occur within families. This webpage is a tool for parents to use to:
- Understand the red flags of sex trafficking to look out for
- Learn how to prevent your child from becoming a victim of sexual exploitation
- Learn how to respond if your child is a victim of sexual exploitation”
Students from multiple home environments can be at risk for sex trafficking. Students, and especially those with disabilities, are particularly vulnerable to victimization. A systemic stereotype exists that younger children and special education students are often regarded as having less social awareness and viewed as not being sexually active. Sadly, many parents, guardians, and society in general have the same perspective.
All children desire acceptance, inclusion in a group, and romantic love. Traffickers are more likely to exploit students due to these systemic stereotypes and fulfill the students’ needs for acceptance, inclusion, and romantic love.
Red Flags for Parents and Families
- Misses a lot of school without your permission and/or running away and unexplained periods of time away from home
- Presence of, or reference to, older boyfriend or girlfriend
- Sudden possession of expensive clothing, purses, or electronics the family did not purchase and she/he cannot afford
- Sudden change in dress/appearance
- Unusual new tattoo
- Unexplained cash
- “Second” cell phone in her purse or wallet hotel room keys in her/his purse or wallet
- Fake ID in purse or wallet
- Reference to new “modeling job” or music video job
- Sudden change in behavior such as new signs of depression, anger or appearance
- Sudden academic decline
- Surprising change in friendships/relationships with peers
- Uncharacteristically promiscuous behavior or references to sexual situations either in person or on social media
- Signs of physical abuse or restraint (cuts or bruises)
- Signs of self-mutilation (cutting)
- Sexually transmitted infection/disease
- Use of terminology like “the game” “the life” “daddy” “manager” “date/trick”
- Suicide attempt
- Starts using drugs
- Starts drinking alcohol
- Gang affiliation
TRIGGER WARNING – Reader may become overwhelmed
The following student case studies are true stories modified to protect the identity of the individuals. These events have either been reported in the news or have been released by the police.
Noel’s parents were abruptly woken up by Noel. Noel was sobbing, her face was red, and she was shaking. Noel’s parents could tell that she was scared and it was unclear what had upset her so much. Noel eventually calmed down enough to speak clearly, “I met this guy at the mall and now he is threatening to embarrass me. He knows where I live and I’m scared. I guess the gift card he used at the mall was fake and now he is telling me that I need to go to this party with him with my shirt off to make money.”
Noel’s parents were extremely concerned and shocked. Noel’s parents told her to take some deep breaths and asked for her phone. They called the police and were able to have someone who specializes in sex trafficking cases. Noel told the police about the situation and they took her phone for evidence. Noel’s parents were able to find her a therapist where she can process what occurred.
Force: Not present in this case study.
Fraud: Noel was tricked into spending money at the mall with a fake gift card.
Coercion: A threat was made to tell the victims community about all the secrets she shared with him. Black mailing the victim into paying the money back.
Jasmine has an intellectual disability and has a hard time making friends. Recently her parents let her have an Instagram account. Jasmine was having fun making videos to share with others, connect with family out of state, and she was able to find a virtual club. This virtual group connected through a program called Discord. Jasmine met new friends through this platform and her parents were really excited for her.
Over time Jasmine got a boyfriend through this group. Jasmine’s parents did their best to teach Jasmine about boundaries online. Eventually, Jasmine was surprised to hear that the boyfriend was going to come visit her. He told her not to tell her parents as he wanted it to be a surprise for them too. When the boyfriend arrived, he picked up Jasmine really late at night and told Jasmine it was normal for girlfriends to sneak out. For the next few weeks Jasmine sneaked out of her house and met all kinds of her boyfriend’s friends. He told Jasmine that he appreciated her so much for loving him that she needed to give love to his friends as well.
At school, teachers noticed Jasmine was falling asleep in class, was not able to pay attention, and noticed she had a new backpack. School called Jasmine’s parents to share their observations and Jasmine’s parents were confused. Jasmine’s parents spoke to Jasmine later that day about what was going on and she said she couldn’t tell. Jasmine’s parents were concerned and continued to ask Jasmine to speak to them.
Jasmine shared, “Every night I go see my boyfriend. We are happy together and we love each other. He told me I have a lot of love to give, so I love his friends as well. It is what boyfriends and girlfriends do.” Jasmine’s parents were shocked, but they tried to stay calm. They began the conversation with Jasmine about healthy relationships and healthy boundaries. Eventually Jasmine’s parents took her phone and called the police. The police brought along a detective who specializes in sex trafficking cases to work with their daughter.
Force: Not represented in this case study.
Fraud: Jasmine was tricked into believing the trafficker loves her. The trafficker tricked Jasmine into believing he was her boyfriend. The trafficker also provided rides and gave materialistic items to Jasmine.
Coercion: Not represented in this case study.
How to prevent your child from becoming a victim
Taken from ASU STIRs Parent Brochure
- Listen and Be Proactive | Talk to your teenager and ask questions about how they feel about their peers and the people around them. Teens sometimes struggle with peer pressure, bullying, and other social pressures like drinking or using drugs. All of these issues will increase their vulnerability.
- Encourage Extracurricular Activities and Hobbies | Athletics, arts, and organized volunteer activities can all serve to help a child build their self-esteem, self-worth and to develop empathy.
- Teach Media Literacy | Teach your teen how to identify, analyze and evaluate media messages in TV shows, movies, song lyrics, magazine articles and photos, apps, commercials, slogans or social media posts. Teens should be able to understand that many images they see have been edited, and do not represent a “real” or healthy body.
- Know Who is Reaching Out to Your Child | Knowing who your teen is talking to regularly or spending time with will help protect them and allow you to give them guidance about someone who may be a negative influence. Traffickers have contacted their victims online through social media or in locations where teens gather.
- Know It’s Okay to Say “No” | Teach your teen that it is always ok to say “no” and there is no situation that is so terrible that you would not be there to help. Have a contact plan that includes a way for them to ask for your help to get out of a bad situation, without getting in trouble.
- Teach Your Child About Sex | By reinforcing and supplementing what your teen learns in school, you can help your teen develop important attitudes and information about healthy sexuality. Teens are naturally curious and are likely to search for information about sex online, and be exposed to sexually explicit pornography either as a search result or by accident. Also teach your child that it is okay to say “no” to sex and that it is not okay to have sex out of feelings of obligation or fear.
- Spend Time With Your Teen | Teens require quality time with their parents (without distractions) so they can talk about what is going on in their daily lives and so you can assure your child that you are there to help them resolve problems. Time driving in the car is a good place to talk, or so is going for a walk without cell phones. Volunteering together is another way to spend quality time and teach about empathy and perspective about other people’s circumstances and suffering.
- Know Where and How Your Teen Gets New Things | Sex traffickers will use the things that your teen wants to lure them. Take a regular inventory of your teen’s belongings and ask questions if you see expensive electronics, clothing, purses, makeup, hairstyles, nails or items that you did not pay for or that you know your teen cannot afford.
- Teach About the World | Traffickers will use seeing the world or getting out of town as a lure with teens. Expose your child to other places, cultures, and languages so they don’t feel isolated or ignorant about the world around them. Many teens do not know their parents phone numbers, and rely on electronic contacts. Make sure your teen knows how to ask for help or contact you if taken to another location or separated from their cell phone.
- Get Counseling if It’s Needed | If your child’s symptoms of depression or anger are disrupting school or home life, get professional help. Ignoring your child’s signals for help will only drive them further away and possibly lead to them seeking comfort from a stranger.
How to respond if your child is a victim of sex trafficking
Taken from ASU STIRs Parent Brochure
- Call the police | Report your suspicions with as much supporting evidence as possible. Pimps are violent and dangerous criminals and your child is not safe in his/her presence. Think about the physical safety of your child and your family. Teens often will reconnect with their trafficker. Explain how this is a bad idea and consider restricting or monitoring all communication channels.
- Learn all you can about your child’s rights as a victim | Continue to offer nonjudgmental support, compassionate listening and let your child know that they are a victim of a crime and that you love them no matter what. Sex trafficking victims have endured a high level of trauma and require specialized services and interventions. Victims of trauma can experience extreme stress that impacts the person’s ability to cope and function.
- Have your child tested for sexually transmitted infections right away. If left untreated, normally curable diseases can cause long-term complications and infertility.
- Seek long-term counseling with a trusted provider who is trauma informed and has some experience working with victims of sex trafficking.
- Think about psychological safety | You can help your child feel safe by helping them identify things that instill the feelings of safety, and stay away from people, places and things that make them feel unsafe. If your child is involved with people at school who are influencing her/his behavior, consider changing schools to avoid daily interactions and pressure from peers.
- Monitor social media or consider a break from all social media | Monitor internet usage and website/data history.
- Be prepared to deal with drug addition, PTSD, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness during the recovery process | Avoid blaming your child for her/his role in the abuse. Do not use words that suggest her or his behavior caused the trauma.
- Find support in your local community with a peer mentoring program. Peer support and group therapy is helpful and sex trafficking victims can be coached to feel less like a victim and have more support.
- Find a survivor mentor. These interactions with other survivors can foster feelings of strength and help empower youth to rebuild self-esteem and make positive choices going forward.
Online support resources for parents
- Kid Power
- Skills for strong and safe relationships parents can help their kids build. https://www.kidpower.org/relationships/
- Training/Workshops for building Child Abuse/Sexual Abuse/Dating/Domestic Violence and Sexual assault Prevention. https://www.kidpower.org/programs/sexual-abuse-prevention/
- Parents Helping Parents
- Discussing Sexuality as a means to Abuse Prevention https://www.php.com/elearning/importance-of-discussing-sexuality-as-a-means-of-abuse-prevention/
- Training and additional resources https://www.protectnow.org/forparents
- How to talk to kids about consent and sexual harassment: Wendy Sellers. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOzkfIT_V3I
- Protectnow.org provides training and additional resources for parents https://www.protectnow.org/forparents
- Body safety – safe and unsafe touching https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8R2g5QrDAw
- Red flags parents can look out for – https://www.nationwidechildrens.org/family-resources-education/700childrens/2017/10/human-trafficking-what-parents-need-to-know