It doesn’t matter where you are – if you stop and think of it, you’ll be able to recall a recent social media post regarding a local missing teen or young adult in just the past few days alone. These calls for help seem to be increasing and with it a lot of conversation about what’s really happening: Where do these children go when they run? Why do they run? And my biggest question: in a world where human traffickers are constantly on the prowl for prey, are these kids truly runaways or have they been strategically targeted and lured away, and what’s the difference? Well, the difference is one every parent must know. Let’s dive into the details:

RUNAWAYS. Some toss “running away” to a simple point in a child’s life when they need a break or time to do their own thing. According to Empowering Parents, in order to run, a child must have the willingness, opportunity and ability. Psychologists also identify triggers like stress, failure, bullying, fear of discipline, a desire to exert power, dealing with a substance abuse, not wanting to go to school or even idealizing running away (creating a romanticized view of freedom in life on the streets) as factors that lead kids to go. While runaways face grave dangers, if they are in control of their fate, the thinking is they will return.

LURED AWAY. But what if the child ran away because they were strategically lured away? There is a huge distinction. A child who is lured away has unknowingly been in contact with a predator who has targeted them, invested in them, and at the moment they run, sees them as a financial commodity where they will be held against their will and forced to do the unimaginable. Sure, these children may willingly walk out of their homes or school, but they have been defrauded and will more than likely be trafficked. I would say the dangers for these kids are grave, making it critical that the community come together, in full force, to find them.

Before you think that can never happen here, think again. Human trafficking, particularly of girls, is on the rise. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime added that trafficking cases overall have hit a 13-year high. Further, study shows that while victims of human trafficking were traditionally thought to be homeless individuals, children or youth in the foster care system, and migrant workers, times are changing and so are the victims.

Today we are learning that traffickers are placing recruiters in churches and schools, in the heart of American cities, to find their targets.

To learn more about this, I spoke to human trafficking activist, Jennifer Hohman, founder of FightForUs.org. FightForUs.org spells out the process by which the everyday child, in a regular neighborhood, in a great home, could fall into this trap. Here’s what parents/caregivers must look out for:

The child is:

  1. Befriended– Recruiters are strategically placed in the child’s life to befriend them and gain their trust. They can be new kids at school or church. They may look like your child and will fit right in.
  2. Intoxicated– Once the friendship blossoms, the recruiter introduces alcohol or drugs to start the process of breaking the child down and creating a wedge between the child and their family. Now the child has secrets that he/she shares with the recruiter but keeps from their parents/caregivers. The child starts to “enjoy” things that make him/her feel older and more independent.
  3. Alienated– Now that a wedge is developed, parents start responding to the changes in their child by placing more rules and in turn, the recruiter uses this to drive a greater wedge between the child and their family.
  4. Isolated– In addition to causing friction at home, the recruiter drives distance between the child and his/her friends and introduces the child to a new crowd of people.
  5. Desensitized– By this stage, the child has heard so much about “life could be so much better if they were just free.” Parents and their rules are a burden, the child has already done drugs or been drinking, they may have started sleeping with a boyfriend/girlfriend or shared promiscuous images online. They start to see traditional thoughts about respecting themselves and their families as immature and no longer pertinent.
  6. Capitalized – At this point, the recruiter has convinced your child that life is better somewhere else and a plan is placed for your child to leave home. Once away from you, the trafficking starts and the retrieval of this child goes down to 1 or 2 percent.

It’s important to realize that by the time you reach step six, your child “willingly” runs away but the real issue is your child was never truly in control of this decision and the outcome. Their immaturity and the parents’ naivety all work to the predator’s advantage.

But we can all stop being naive. We can know the signs, know who your child is talking to, question everyone, and invest in your ability to protect the child and their ability to protect him/herself. Share stories with your young children about the risks of running away and how predators lure children away and why. A lot of this is achieved through simple education and awareness. Talk to your kids. Talk to other family members. Talk to your school and do whatever possible to protect your children and all children. Every child is worth the thought and conversation.


Author: Rania Mankarious, CEO of Crime Stoppers of Houston and Special Advisor for Safe and Sound Schools