Metro Detroit experts weigh in on how to protect children from human trafficking

FBI agent says children most at risk while using electronics

By Meaghan St Pierre - Producer

DETROIT - Children are more at risk of becoming human trafficking targets while on their tablets than at any shopping center or public place, according to experts.

"These guys are out there and they're hunting young girls just like you," said Michael Glennon, a supervisory special agent with FBI Detroit, to a group of girls from several different high schools in the metro Detroit area.

Glennon wants kids and parents to know children are at risk while sitting in their bedrooms using their tablets or smartphones.

Glennon said the traffickers are hunting kids on social media websites, including Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook and Kik. He said there are roughly 400 to 500 enticements a day for solicitation of sexual activity.

In human trafficking, victims are coerced into providing sex for money or to work under inhumane and illegal work conditions.

Young girls and boys can be deceived online, tricked into thinking a pimp is actually their friend or boyfriend.

"They act like they're 14- or 15-year-old boys and that they're developing a relationship with these girls and they get them to, you know, give some sort of images of themselves in kind of a compromising fashion," Glennon said. "Then they use that against them, you know, and again that could be the start of trafficking or it could just simply be, you know, an online enticement situation but again, it's the exploitation of that child which can have some significant impact because they feel like they're developing relationship with what they think is a peer and it's actually a group of individuals working together to hunt, to target them."

Glennon said the motivation is money. They make money off exploiting young girls and boys.

The Southeast Michigan Trafficking and Exploitation Crimes Task Force recovered 243 kids caught up in exploitation last year. He said since the task force started, they have saved more than 1,000 girls from human trafficking.

Glennon said it is not always the pimp who tries to recruit, it can also be a friend or a friend of a friend. It can be someone a child knows in a neighborhood or through church.

Cindy Weintraub, an emergency room nurse with Beaumont for 20 years, educates staff to recognize the signs a patient coming into the ER could be a victim of trafficking.

"It's everywhere," Weintraub said. "It's in Birmingham. It's in Bloomfield. It's in West Bloomfield. It's in Novi. It's in all those places. It's everywhere. It's hard to get specific data because it's so unreported, but we know that these traffickers are everywhere and we know they are targeting girls and girls are getting involved in trafficking everywhere."

Weintraub said girls are befriended through apps and social media and think it is a real boyfriend-girlfriend situation.

"They're developing a relationship with you and these girls feel comfortable," Weintraub said. "Here's a friend. Here's someone that thinks that they're beautiful, that they're valuable, that they're amazing, that they're smart. And that's what these girls want. They're like, 'I have this friend. I have this boyfriend that thinks I'm so awesome,' and they develop that relationship. It's like a boyfriend-girlfriend. It's a love relationship, and how many times we've been in a relationship of love, (when) we just want to do anything for that person."

Weintraub said the scary part is the kids who are victims look like any other kids and the traffickers look like anyone off the street.

The same red flags she teaches the staff at Beaumont, she passes on to the girls attending the conference to recognize in themselves and their friends. The signs include burns, cuts, suddenly not attending classes, no longer participating in after-school activities, or becoming withdrawn, depressed or angry. The person's style of dress can change, their behavior can change or they might have new online friends and they don't know who they are or you don't know who they are either.

Tattoos can also be a sign of a girl branded by her trafficker.

Hannah McPeak, the president of the board and interim executive director of Hope Against Trafficking, wants girls to understand what human trafficking is and the signs of it. She also wants them to understand what a trafficker is, looks like and can do, what manipulators do and that it is OK to report what is happening. She wants them to know the name of an adult they feel is safe to talk to, including the name of their school counselor.

“I would like for all of them to agree to make a pact with their friends," McPeak said. "To tell on each other when there's danger involved, potential danger. I've seen it, I've seen it save lives."

McPeak said having them write down the name of someone they could tell if they got into trouble helps them remember.

"It has them first of all think about it," McPeak said. "Then they have to actually write it down, so it's tactual. It's auditory. They're thinking about it. Then it becomes visual because they're writing it down. So whether they keep the paper or not, it's going to be in their head."

The message to the students is to trust themselves and their gut.

"Trust your instinct," Weintraub said. "If you think something's wrong, then it probably is. There is no reason why a 25-year-old man should date or befriend a 15-year-old girl. That's not right. There is no reason for a boy to come and lavish a 15-year-old girl with $3,000 purses. That's not right. There is no reason to introduce drugs to a teenager. It's not right. Listen to your gut. Listen to your instincts. Listen to your feelings and pay attention to your friends."

Weintraub encouraged parents to talk to their children about the dangers of human trafficking. She also wants parents to reinforce with their children that if they get into a situation that is dangerous, or a situation they are embarrassed or ashamed about, that it is OK to tell them, and that they will not be angry or upset.

Women of Tomorrow, a mentor and scholarship program, helped bring students from several different high schools to attend the conference with Beaumont, Hope Against Trafficking and the Southeast Michigan Trafficking and Exploitation Crimes Task Force.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline is 1-888-373-7888. For more information on human trafficking, click here.

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