Targeting the Innocent: Sex trafficking myths spread on social media
Investigators and survivor advocates say there is no question that children and teens in Michigan are sold for sex, but it doesn't happen the way many think.
The most common myth, according to experts, is often spread on social media. Someone notices a suspicious person following them in a store and goes online, typically with good intentions, to warn of sex traffickers.
Investigators said that's not how traffickers take victims. Experts also warn advancing the false narrative of what's portrayed in movies is keeping real victims in the dark.
"It takes the attention off of what’s really going on," Michigan State Police Missing Children’s Clearinghouse Manager Jolene Hardesty said.
Children are more likely to be targeted inside their own homes, she said.
"It’s someone who has come into your house, on your couch or in your kids bedroom via their smart device," said Hardesty.
Hardesty works with state and local law enforcement to help find missing kids in Michigan.
According to MSP, the most common age range for sex trafficking victims is 13- to 16-years-old.
Scott Jenkins noticed his 12-year-old daughter Haylee become increasingly secretive.
The change in his oldest daughter started when a friend introduced Haylee to a boy on Instagram. Let's call him Brad, that's not his real name, but police believe he is a real 16-year-old boy.
"I was like wait, this isn't... something is wrong," Jenkins said.
Concerned about his daughter's change in behavior, Jenkins snuck into his daughters room to scour her social media accounts while she slept.
What he read, Jenkins said, looked like typical teenage flirting.
“I had no idea it was planned process to lure young girls and that's when it really hit me,” said Jenkins.
Upon further digging he found the email addresses linked to many of Brad’s friends, who were also contacting Haylee, belonged to adult men.
Investigators say sex traffickers use fake accounts to insert themselves into friend groups online.
They use kids to recruit other children, sometimes without their knowledge. Friends of friends, followers of followers, can make predators seem safe.
“They will groom them and talk to them and pretend like they care for them for however long it takes until they can gain this child's trust and once they gain the child's trust, then the game begins,” said Hardesty.
Traffickers target the most vulnerable and lonely children; kids fleeing family violence, runaways, children in the LGBTQ community and children without homes. Traffickers shower children with attention, affections, gifts and promises of a better life.
Hardesty said, "These kids are going missing completely under the radar, some of the kids that are missing, they still go to school every day. They come home sometimes at night, sometimes they are not at home, but we've had straight A students who are being trafficked and parents had no idea."
Hardesty said investigators now see the recruitment process spread from social media into schools.
"You want to make some extra money this weekend? Hey, you want to come party with me?"
Hardesty said students, current victims, act as scouts in schools for traffickers.
Senior Director of Law and Policy at the YWCA Jessica Glynn has provided legal representation to 60 sex trafficking survivors in Kalamazoo County since 2016.
"We do not see people snatched from grocery store parking lots, we do not see people kidnapped in the middle of the night form their beds," Glynn said.
In her decade-long career Glynn has never worked a case where a victim was abducted from a public place.
"We have to get human trafficking right," Glynn said, "Because if we don't then those who are truly victims of human trafficking will never reach safety."
Most of the cases she's seen involve one victim and one suspect, not a chain of victims.
Glynn said, "Like domestic violence, like sexual assault it’s far more complicated than why didn’t you just walk away, or why didn’t you scream for help?"
Reports of sex traffickers at stores masks the ways that children are actually being victimized. Glynn said, "Those are not human trafficking cases and, so, if we continue to get it wrong and if we continue to advance stories that are not human trafficking, it means that those victims who are in danger, they’re not going to be identified."
She said the Hollywood portrayal of sex trafficking also makes it difficult to prosecute traffickers.
Assaulted, threatened with violence, addicted to drugs or without another place to go, victims can feel trapped. Instead of looking for perceived predators in well-lit public places, Glynn stresses the importance of looking for potential victims.
"Nicer clothes and items they know they couldn’t have afforded or their parents could not have purchased for them and that should raise red flags," Glynn said.
Haylee, now 17-years-old, is happy her dad noticed those red flags and interrupted before she could meet up with Brad and his friends.
"I wouldn't be here right now if I would have met up with him," Haylee said.
A thought that still makes her dad emotional.
Jenkins said, "Mostly anger that this is still happening, I mean, this happens everyday. People need to be aware this happens here."
In 2017, reports of sex trafficking case to the National Human Trafficking Hotline increase by nearly 350 percent since 2012, when Haylee found herself in that questionable online relationship.