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Sunday Mornings with Rania: When Kids are Targeted by Traffickers

Rania Mankarious
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Sunday Mornings with RaniaShe was a quiet 13-year-old who had recently lost her brother and was making her way through a difficult time. Sadly, she became the target of a trafficker who kidnapped her, raped her, drugged her and sold her. He was arrested not too long ago, but released three days later on misdemeanor drug charges. Released right back into our community, he allegedly went right back to trafficking Letty as well as another young girl. Desperate, depressed and damaged, Letty took her own life last week. She was only 15 years old. 

Deep down, there are some who still think that teens who are trafficked are bad kids making bad choices. But they are not. Often, they are good kids caught up by things beyond their control. I posted about Letty, sat down with partners at KTRK to talk about her story and what it meant for all of us... the outpouring of responses has led to this post. So many asked me what we can and must do to stop the sex trafficking of minors. Here are some recommendations but I want to hear from you too, what do you think and what can we do better? 

Understand what sex trafficking is and is not. 
Minors cannot legally run away, they cannot legally consent to sex, they cannot legally choose to share sexually explicit photos of their bodies, they cannot legally accept payment for sex. This is the law and it’s the law because we know that minors don’t have the maturity or mental understanding to enter these types of relationships or agreements knowingly, willingly and with full comprehension of what they mean. It’s illegal. So, let’s start at ground zero - if a child is found to be involved in any one of those previously stated activities (like Letty was when her trafficker was arrested), we must intervene, always. Law enforcement must make arrests and the community must swoop in to protect the victim, the child. Always, period. 

Well, how do kids get there? 
Through many channels. 

  • The rarest is that a child is outright abducted and sold. 
  • More commonly, a child runs away and either straight into the arms of a trafficker who has been urging her to leave for years or is picked up by a trafficker as she tries to survive away from her home. 
  • A rising method is through strategic friendships. Traffickers place recruiters directly into schools, camps, churches, parties, and more to identify potential victims. These recruiters (young children who were previously trafficked) befriend and take their time working their target. I previously outlined this process in this previous post
  • Another rising method is through social media. Traffickers have teams of people scouting potential targets on social media. Once they identify a victim, they will take time watching, befriending, commenting, chatting and doing everything possible to create a scenario to remove that child from your home and into their money-making empire. 

Talk to your children. Seriously. 
The greatest gift we can give these predators is access to children in homes where parents and teens have no idea this can happen to them. Traffickers have access to kids through school (any school - public, private, charter, etc.), parties, bumping into someone at the mall (Hey you’re cute! What’s your name? I’ll follow you!) and social media. We have seen time and time again that they will patiently wait and work the child until they can capitalize. 

  • Talk to your kids. Be honest about how they can be a target and what to do if they suspect a friend is being preyed upon (contact an adult, law enforcement, Crime Stoppers of Houston, local police, school counselor or more) and why they need to stay away from pornography (it’s a gateway for future buyers of victims) as well as from certain Houston night spots (obviously, for older teens - clubs, strip clubs). 
  • Monitor their social media and do a quarterly inventory of their accounts. Go through who is following them. Be reasonable but be thorough (they will have some followers they don’t know but go through them all and challenge them to remove where possible). Talk about hidden apps and the importance of them not hiding information from you online. 
  • Understand where victims are sold. Make this real and share real information. Victims are sold at local clubs, strip clubs, massage parlors (Children At Risk has a tremendous interactive map), hotels, motels, apartments and more. 
  • Review the laws. Remind them that children who post or share inappropriate photos of themselves (or send them to another who asks) will be held responsible for creation of and distribution of child pornography. Remember, a minor cannot willingly choose to take a photo of themselves and share it... it’s illegal, period and always. 
  • How does it start? Remind them that traffickers are looking for their targets at the mall, a party, a church conference, camps or any other place where teens may be. Here’s the deal - make friends, not everyone is bad but know the signs of how traffickers specifically work so that you can quickly identify right from wrong.  

Be loud about what we need as a community. 

  • Governor Greg Abbott is working on laws to address human trafficking and make the punishment traffickers face more serious. To learn more, get involved, or share concerns, contact them directly
  • Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg is serious about protecting victims and punishing traffickers and buyers and we are so thankful for her. Her office presses charges once traffickers are arrested. Our message to her is that we do not want traffickers to be released on deferred adjudication (you’re guilty but we’ll let you go as long as you behave) or on low bonds (there’s probable cause to charge you but for now go free; pay this small bond or fee as insurance that you’ll return to court for future proceedings.). I’d love to see no bond so that these traffickers stay in jail. Reach her office here
  • Harris County Criminal Court Judges play a huge role. The DA makes her recommendations but what’s next is up to the Criminal Court Judge. They need to know we care about this issue, will not tolerate traffickers and buyers not being properly punished. Look into the courts’ records - which judges on the bench are standing for children? Which are not? Contact them here.  
  • Support the work of nonprofits working in this area - Crime Stoppers of Houston is doing so much as are our partners Elijah Rising, Operation Texas Shield, The Landing and so many others. One of our largest partners is Houston20 who is doing wonderful work!

Letty Serrano was a quiet, good student who loved her puppies. Her death and life being trafficked, breaks my heart. So many of you reached out to me for information on what to do now - this is a start. Please share this, discuss it and talk about it. Stand together for Letty. 

Read past Sunday Mornings with Rania posts here. Find more information on Crime Stoppers of Houston on their website or follow them on Facebook. Have topics in mind that you’d like Rania to write about? Comment below or email her at rmankarious@crime-stoppers.org. Rania is co-host of a weekly podcast which features interesting local and national guests who used their platforms for the good of the community. Connect with Rania on Instagram and Twitter

Editor's Note: Views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Buzz Magazines.

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