Caught unaware: How vulnerable teens and preteens can become targets for sex trafficking

Photos by Nina Malyna.
Photo illustrations by Nina Malyna.

What you don’t know can hurt you. That’s what Nancy Baldwin wants kids and their parents to understand.

Baldwin has been active with the the Hickey Family Foundation since its inception in 2004, and she is passionate about her work, which includes an initiative for the prevention and rescue of child victims of sex trafficking.

“Most people are unaware of the enormity of this problem,” says Baldwin, trustee and executive director of the Mesa foundation.

The U.S. Department of Justice cites Phoenix as one of the top sex-trafficking jurisdictions in the country.

“The same economic forces that fuel tourism in Arizona also support sex trafficking — warm weather, multiple interstate highways, proximity to the border, short drive to Las Vegas or San Diego, major conference destination and home to many professional sporting events,” according to the Arizona Governor’s Office.

Spurred by high demand, sex traffickers are constantly recruiting both male and female victims into the commercial sex trade. Particularly at risk are minors who are abducted, coerced or enticed into prostitution. Places where traffickers seek victims include schools, bus stations, foster homes, homeless shelters, parks, playgrounds, restaurants and shopping malls.

The internet has changed the game radically for sex trafficking, which is estimated to be a $12 billion per year industry that’s growing, according to ASU’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research website.

Who’s at risk?

“A sex trafficker doesn’t care about social status, economic background, race or ethnicity. They are looking for one thing — vulnerability,” Baldwin says.

Vulnerability is the reason at-risk youth are the most likely to be trafficked. This includes kids in homeless shelters or those who have run away. Also, children in the foster-care system or those from unstable home environments often are prime targets.

Baldwin is quick to note that this problem exists in every city and every demographic across the state. “Any teenager can make a bad decision,” she says.

The average age of a child targeted for prostitution in the United States is 11 to 14 years old, according to the FBI. Kids this age are ill-equipped to recognize the signs of a predator when they meet one.

“Often these kids think they’re in love,” Baldwin says. “It doesn’t take much to convince them to start sexting or going places they wouldn’t normally go or do things they wouldn’t normally do.”

Perpetrators have become sophisticated in their techniques, Baldwin says, and will pursue a potential victim over an extended period of time, pretending to be a friend and protector when in reality they’re setting up the child for abuse. Once the child is under their control, sex traffickers will manipulate their victims through threats, physical abuse, drugs, withholding food and other techniques.

Over time, victims begin to feel that what is happening to them is their own fault, and they even can develop Stockholm syndrome and start identifying with their abuser.

Protecting our kids

To protect our children, Baldwin says, these points must be addressed:

Educate the community. “This is not what it looked like in ‘Pretty Woman.’ It is something that is happening right before our eyes, but the public often doesn’t recognize it.” Visit Training and Resources United to Stop Trafficking at to learn the warning signs, such as: strange hotel keys, barcode tattoos, unexplained cash, defensiveness when recounting routine events, fear of social interactions and more. If you suspect sex trafficking, it’s crucial that you report it; a child’s life may be in danger.

Realize kids are victims. Law enforcement, judges and prosecutors need to recognize that youth prostituted on the street should be seen as victims, not juvenile delinquents.

Educate children. Teach children about the dangers that exist, especially online. Create an environment in which your child feels comfortable talking with you. Encourage your kids to let you know if they encounter an uncomfortable or potentially dangerous situation. Do this as early as possible, because sex traffickers are targeting ever-younger ages. Specific rules and guidelines need to be given to children regarding their computer and cellphone use.

Change attitudes. We must create awareness and stop glamorizing the sex trade. “It is truly ugly,” Baldwin says. “Men who solicit sex acts need to be prosecuted and shamed. This is not a victimless crime.”

SexTraffic-2November: National Runaway Prevention Month

From 1.6 million  to 2.8 million young people run away in a year. If they all lived in a single city, it would be the fifth largest city in the United States. One in three teens living on the street will be lured into prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home. To learn more,  visit and

How can parents protect their kids?

• Know where your children are at all times. Sexual predators prey on children whose parents or guardians aren’t looking out for them.

• Know what your children are doing online and teach internet safety. Sex traffickers are masterful at deceiving kids online and often make initial contact with their victims on the internet.

• Teach them about sexual exploitation. Teach them to trust their instincts and what behaviors are inappropriate. Give them “what if?” scenarios and discuss how they would handle them.

• Know the warning signs. Visit for warning signs for different age groups and such resources as “How to talk to your kids about human trafficking.”

• Report human trafficking. If you believe you have information about a potential trafficking situation, call the confidential 24-hour National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 1-888-373-7888.