Community learns about human trafficking through workshop hosted by Mt. Laurel Schools

Parents and concerned citizens learned telltale signs of abuse and why children in Mt. Laurel may be susceptible to trafficking.

Parents, concerned citizens and officials from Mt. Laurel Schools gathered at Harrington Middle School this week for a public information session district officials hope will be the first step in bringing more attention to the potential danger of child sex trafficking in the area.

The nearly two-hour information session featured speakers from organizations such as the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking and New Jersey Child Assault Prevention, as they gave an overview of human trafficking and provided the audience with key indicators that may be used to identify victims.

Diane Willard, event organizer and director of Mt. Laurel Schools’ Child Study Team, noted Mt. Laurel is an area where children may be more likely to fall prey to traffickers.

“It’s something that all of our parents and educators need to be aware of to protect our children,” Willard said.

With the township’s various shopping centers, traffickers can more easily scout and eventually form relationships with potential victims. Then, traffickers can more quickly exploit their victims by using the township’s numerous motels or hotels, or major highways leading to nearby metropolitan areas.

According to Jim Halfpenny, who serves as vice president of the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking, 80 percent of human trafficking cases are instances where the victims know their traffickers.

“Whether its immediate family, a step parent, ‘boyfriends,’ which we use as a slang for pimps or employers — about 80 percent of victims know their traffickers,” Halfpenny said. “Probably the story I’ve heard most often is that when kids enter into ‘the life’ or ‘the game’ or prostitution, it is usually middle school age or as a freshman in high school.”

Halfpenny noted that while a trafficker can target any child, traffickers will often focus on youth who exhibit a number of specific vulnerabilities, including:

• Youth who are chronically missing or who chronically run away, especially those with three or more incidents

• Youth who have experienced childhood sexual abuse, especially if it results in being removed from the home or the abuse was unreported or unaddressed

• Youth who have experienced prior sexual assault or rape

• Youth with significant substance abuse problems or those living with families with significant substance abuse

• Youth who identify as LGBTQ and have been stigmatized or kicked out by their families

If a parent, guardian or teacher suspects a child has been targeted by a trafficker or is involved with sex trafficking, there are several behavioral indicators and physical indicators one might observe.

Behavioral indicators for youth can include significant changes to online activities or new groups of older friends, lying about one’s age and identity, seeming coached when talking to law enforcement and resisting offers of help to leave a potentially dangerous situation.

Physical indicators can include multiple minors associating with unrelated and overly possessive older males or females, possession of sexual paraphernalia such as bulk condoms or lubrication, references to constant travel to others cities or states, possession of multiple cell phones or electronic devices, possession of more money or items than seems appropriate for a young age or evidence of constant travel — living out of suitcases, at motels or in a car.

“Trauma will also have a profound impact on brain development,” Halfpenny said. “I think it will be obvious to anyone that if a kid suffered a concussion, that might have an impact on brain development. Intense emotional trauma can have that same impact.”

Willard said she hopes to see more individual workshops take place for each of the district’s schools, during which time parents can have prevention information tailored to the ages of their children.

Willard said such future events could also help the district work with its teachers and eventually move the information into classrooms to help directly present children with age-appropriate information about dangers human trafficking can present.

“I think this was the first step of raising awareness, because it certainly wasn’t something that I recognized that could even happen in Mt. Laurel,” Willard said.

Should a child go missing, parents or legal guardians are asked to immediately call law enforcement to make a report. Parents are guardians are then asked to call the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 1–800–843–5678 to also ensure all available resources are being deployed.

Citizens can also call that number should they suspect a case of child sex trafficking or visit www.cybertipline.org.

The public can also learn more at New Jersey Child Assault Prevention’s website at njcap.org and the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking’s website at www.njhumantrafficking.org.