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Technology Disrupts Child Sex Trade, Aiding Victims and Blocking Buyers

Three people sit before microphones in front of a blue AAAS backdrop
Michael Pullman (left), Robert Beiser and Amanda Hightower speak at a Feb. 13 briefing at the 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington. | Robb Cohen Photography & Video

Technology can disrupt the child sex trafficking market in ways traditional efforts cannot, according to experts involved in slowing the child sex trade in Seattle, Washington. Through technology, they report, victims have easier access to public services designed to free them from abuse and discourage buyers from seeking sex, which is increasingly done online.

“Traditional efforts to identify, reach, and help victims of child sex trafficking have relied primarily on human-to-human interactions, which is inherently limiting in scope and scalability,” said Amanda Hightower, executive director of the Seattle-based nonprofit Real Escape from the Sex Trade (REST). For her organization, partnering with the anti-trafficking technology company Seattle Against Slavery (SAS) a few years ago, to use a victim text outreach service, led to a 40% increase in the number of sex victims who reached out to REST for help in the past two years.

“For comparison, for every 60 hours of street outreach we did, we would see one victim engage in our services,” she said, “whereas with text outreach, one victim will engage for every 6 hours of outreach.”

Robert Beiser, previously SAS’s executive director, and now the Strategic Initiatives Director for Sex Trafficking at Polaris in Washington, D.C., led the development of this text technology, called Freedom Signal.

“By utilizing [Freedom Signal], we are able to engage with thousands of potential victims right where they are at the click of a button,” Hightower said. “We can shape our messaging to match the preferred pacing and interests of the victim, which ultimately leads to higher engagement levels over time.”

Hightower said victims of sex trafficking tell REST that utilizing text messages to connect to social services is better than in-person outreach for a variety of reasons, including for the way it gives the victim more control. “They can respond right away, or they can wait for weeks until they are in a safe place or have a greater interest,” she said. She noted that many survivors have described waiting until their pimp is gone and then scrolling through hundreds of texts to find the one REST sent so they could reach out for help “when the coast was clear.”

The system works by sending texts – “If you are in the city and need support, text me” – to numbers identified through online trafficking monitoring. “We get about a ten percent response rate,” said Beiser. This exceeds returns from traditional street-based outreach to victims.

The challenge remains, though, says Beiser, that organizations could pull children out of abuse situations, “but if there are still buyers, then we’re going to have the same problem.”

In an unprecedented effort, Beiser has also used the technology to block the buyers in pursuit of sex with minors. This starts with technology that charts the market for sex: who is buying, where buyers work, where they‘re searching for sex, and whether they’re searching for adults or children. This is not easy as human trafficking is complex, dynamic, and notoriously hard to track. In 2018, Polaris, where Beiser is now employed, worked on 10,949 cases of human trafficking in the U.S. involving 23,078 survivors and nearly 5,859 potential traffickers – numbers likely only a fraction of the actual problem.

Fortunately, however, the simple digital interventions that Seattle Against Slavery developed to target buyers – advertisements on “escort” websites that indicate buyers might hurt people, or decoy trafficking victim chatbots that capture potential buyers’ phone numbers and make them accessible to police – have tangibly influenced buyer behavior. Searches to the popular escort website “Backpage Escorts,” for example, decreased by over 50% in about a year and a half using these tactics, Beiser said.

Efforts to stop child sex trafficking also required a better understanding of which children are most likely to fall victim. “With the growth of the internet, every child is at risk of being groomed online through social networking sites, chatrooms, video games, and so on,” said Barbara Mack, a retired juvenile court judge based in Seattle and now a board member of National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

Michael Pullman, research associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, led a study of youth from child-welfare systems exploited for sex trafficking. The results, soon to be published, reveal patterns that could be used by practitioners as early warning flags for at-risk children in this highly unstable population.

“Youth in the child welfare system identified as commercially sexually exploited have strikingly high residential instability while in child welfare, which is largely attributable to running away,” Pullman said. Nine out of ten of youth studied in his analysis who went on to be exploited in human trafficking had at least one runaway episode; of those who ran away, they did so an average of nine times.

“Preventing runaway behavior may be the most important step child welfare can take in preventing commercial sexual exploitation,” Pullman said.

He emphasized that all foster parents should be trained on the warning signs of commercial sexual exploitation and should be reminded of these warning signs after a runaway episode occurs. “After a child runs away,” Pullman said, “intervention protocols should continue to include an assessment for commercial sexual exploitation risk.”

Pullman is now focused on work to help improve the sexual exploitation screening tool used by child welfare systems so that high-risk cases are identified earlier and with greater accuracy.

His efforts to gain insights into trafficking’s most likely victims, as well as the technology-based results from the partnership between REST and SAS, are yielding progress that could serve as a model in locales beyond Seattle.

Hightower is part of efforts to consider how to expand connections between social services and technology nationwide.

“In order for a technology application like Freedom Signal to scale,” she said, “we need to build up services throughout the nation that are capable of responding to victims, so when victims respond to outreach messages, there are services available.” Currently, she explained, there are few ways victims can learn about available services, like beds in a shelter, without searching through a resource list and calling or emailing a provider. This process, including getting a response, can take weeks.

“This is where technology can be utilized to offer a solution that benefits both service providers and victims,” Hightower said. “Imagine a technology platform that provides a safe, trauma-sensitive, and confidential way for victims of sex trafficking, advocates, and referrers to find options for services that have current openings and match to a victim’s self-identified needs and preferences. [This] kind of application will have the potential to link victims with services in a way the victim services field has yet to experience.”

Working for Polaris, Beiser is already starting to think nationally. “[It is] a really exciting opportunity to look at how experiences across the country of trafficking survivors, support service agencies, and law enforcement can give us key insights into how to reduce sex trafficking nationally. We’re developing strategies that center the survivor experience and look at how technology, training, and data can help increase safety for those at risk and reduce opportunity and incentive for people who would exploit them.”

By preventing the risk of re-exploitation into a sex trafficking ring, former victims can be set on a path toward healing. “When I was a juvenile court judge, trafficked children wrote poems, created beautiful art, music, and one wrote a story long enough to be a novella,” said Mack. “These youth are often incredibly resilient, and with the right kind of help, lead productive, creative, giving lives.”

The topic was the subject of a news briefing on 13 February at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington.


[Associated image: Robb Cohen Photography & Video]



Meagan Phelan

Communications Director, Science Family of Journals

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