The conversation around missing children ties into a larger, more ominous one — human trafficking.
Defined by Morgan Nick Foundation Assistant Director Genevie Strickland as “using opportunity to coerce or blackmail someone and use them for the opportunity to make money,” human trafficking is estimated to be a $32 billion industry worldwide. Strickland says human trafficking is a prominent factor in why hundreds of thousands children are reported missing every year in the United States.
“That’s every parent’s worst nightmare: if my kid goes missing, what’s happening to them physically?” said Hope Campus Community Relations Director Maddie Hardwick, who previously worked at Black Box International, a nonprofit focused on ending the human trafficking of boys.
At an estimated $32 billion each year, human trafficking is second in the illicit market only to drug trafficking in lucrative value. While the definition of human trafficking is expansive, it often takes on a sexual nature and is done through technology.
Because children have greater access to the internet through cellphones, predators are able to reach them more easily, Strickland said. And because of the level of communication provided by cellphones, these predators are often able to traffic them in plain sight, while they are living at home.
But Strickland also said a “huge majority” of the roughly 800,000 children reported missing each year in the United States is related to what they do online, specifically on apps. Fort Smith police detective Jeff Mitchell in 2019 said there are “definitely” children in the city who are crossing state lines to engage in the sex trade. And geographically, the city has features that would make it an easy target for human trafficking, state officials told the Times Record in 2018.
“What happens is, these children meet people online — and there are a lot of internet predators who are searching to meet kids — and they meet them, they befriend them, and they often coerce them into doing things,” Strickland said.
Hardwick said sexual exploitation is “hard to track” because most sex crimes in general go unreported. The reporting accuracy of human trafficking specifically is further complicated by technology, which allows a victim to be trafficked while not appearing to be.
Because of this dynamic, Hardwick recommends parents closely monitor what their children are doing on the internet. She also said they should talk to children about sex and their bodies.
“Don’t make it a taboo subject,” Hardwick said. “If something is happening but it’s a taboo subject, do you think they want to talk about it?”
Strickland said prevention also includes teaching adults and children what it looks like in Arkansas.
“(It’s) one of the biggest misconceptions we have, is that trafficking happens in other countries, or it happens in other places, it doesn’t happen around us,” she said. “Knowing that it does happen around us is key.”