'Most parents don't know.' Advocates raise awareness of subtle warning signs of child trafficking
Human trafficking has become the fastest growing criminal industry in the world, and the tri-state area is a gateway destination for this lucrative criminal enterprise. Activists are trying to fight back as the sex trade is flourishing in unexpected places, but what can you do as a parent to keep your children safe?
Advocates at the Safe Center LI in Bethpage said human trafficking on Long Island is happening at alarming rates. The subtle warning signs are easily missed, even under your own roof.
"For a lot of the cases that we get, most parents don't know," said Regina Roundtree, human trafficking case manager supervisor at the Safe Center LI. "I believe it's because parents don't know what to look for."
The Safe Center currently has 24 open cases of human trafficking involving minors in Nassau County. Case workers tell Team 12 Investigates that number is lower than what they normally see in a month.
Roundtree helps victims and communities recognize the red flags of child trafficking, such as unexplained amounts of cash and extreme changes in behavior.
"This is going to sound silly, but extreme internet usage. Parents need to know what their children are doing on the internet," Roundtree added. "If they have items of value that the parent did not buy, money, cellphones, they're getting their nails and their hair done but the parents aren't providing the finances for that, these are things they need to look into."
Education is a critical piece in how the Safe Center combats human trafficking, but this one agency on Long Island is part of an even bigger mission that signals a change.
Local calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline exploded during the pandemic and calls from victims spiked nearly 200% since 2019. According to New York trafficking data, there were 671 victim calls in 2021 compared to 635 victim calls in 2020 and 249 victim calls in 2019.
"The numbers are rising and I would guess this is not because it is happening more now, but more so because we're identifying it better," said Debra Lyons, associate executive director at TSCLI.
Team 12 Investigates looked at the tri-state's response to human trafficking.
In New York, a network of human services providers and police make up the Interagency Task Force on Human Trafficking. It is spearheaded by the Division of Criminal Justice Services and the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. The task force, which involves eight other state agencies, uses tough state laws and undercover operations to target supply and demand. It also collects data on the number of victims and prioritizes training and public awareness.
Next door, Connecticut has six Human Anti-trafficking Response Teams (HART) that focus specifically on child trafficking and the signs to look for. These interdisciplinary teams are led by the state Department of Children and Families and include a child's treatment team, specialized providers and attorneys.
The New Jersey Commission on Human Trafficking is composed of 15 members from various backgrounds, including a survivor of human trafficking. They evaluate the enforcement of existing laws, make recommendations about the availability of services and promote public awareness. The task force also has targeted training for anyone who may be in contact with a victim, such as airline workers, public transportation drivers and hotel employees.
Roundtree believes that shining a light on this dark problem can help clear a path to freedom for many unsuspecting, young victims.
Rachel Yonkunas: "Do those children know that they're being trafficked?"
Regina Roundtree: "Some do and some don't. It depends on how long they've been in this lifestyle. Kids don't necessarily know about agencies like this, but adults have access, so let the kids know that there are people that care."