Eau Claire mother and Altoona teacher Jennifer Bain knows human trafficking exists.
She’s heard about it from parents, through school education programs and read about it online. But sitting in St. John’s Lutheran Church on Wednesday night watching a video of a teenage boy looking for friends online and ending up the victim of sex trafficking, she’s still surprised at how fast it occurs.
“You know that it’s out there, but that makes it more personal,” Bain said. “It’s scary to see that it starts with something as simple as wanting to have a friend.”
Bain and her 13-year-old son, Ben, attended “Keeping Kids Safe in a Digital Age” Wednesday night, a presentation led by Jodi Emerson of Altoona-based Fierce Freedom, an organization working to end human sex trafficking.
Emerson knows children today have easier and quicker access to the internet than any generation before them. That’s why it is more important than ever for parents to have difficult conversations with their children.
She shared with the crowd of around 30 people, including many children, videos of teenagers falling victim to sex trafficking in their own homes and statistics about those victims — for example, the average age of people who enter into sex trafficking is 12 to 14 years old, and 60 percent of victims don’t report the crime.
Her goal was not to scare everyone out of using technology, but rather to open a line of dialogue between families about how best to set up expectations.
“I’m sorry for everybody that’s going to have an awkward conversation on the ride home tonight, but I’m hoping this presentation gives you an opening to have those conversations,” Emerson said. “It’s not about having ‘the talk,’ but having several talks and starting those conversations at a young age.”
Sex trafficking is defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act as “a commercial sex act induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.”
An estimated 46 million people are involved in modern-day slavery today, according to Fierce Freedom. That’s nearly three times the amount of people estimated to be affected by cancer (14 million in 2014, according to the National Cancer Institute).
Still, it might not seem like something a safe community in the Chippewa Valley could possibly be dealing with. But Emerson argues it is happening right here.
The first sex trafficking victim she met was a resident of Chippewa Falls who traveled to the Twin Cities after meeting someone online.
“I have no doubt in my mind somebody is being trafficked every single day in our community,” Emerson said. “The world we were raised in is not the world we are raising our children in because of instant communication, apps and social media. So how do we keep kids safe in that context?”
Emerson went over examples of safety controls and filters parents can set up to monitor their kids’ apps on their phones as well as disabling the internet after a certain amount of time.
But, more important than all of those controls, she said, is instilling values in children just as parents have always done — except now, it’s including the context of apps.
“Instead of saying, ‘I don’t like this app; you can’t use it,’ let them explain what they would be using it for,” Emerson said. “It’s not about the tool, it’s about how it is being used and having those conversations with kids about an app before downloading it.”
Teresa Burrows of Eau Claire brought her 14-year-old daughter, Paige, to the presentation. Burrows thought it was important both she and her teenager be aware of the ever-changing apps and technology smartphones have created.
She and Paige have conversations about her cell phone a lot. She knows her daughter’s passwords and has access to the phone when she needs it.
She trusts her daughter, but there are still so many things she doesn’t know.
“I think we do tend to be in our safe little homes where we think we’re safe,” Burrows said. “To know it’s happening that much in our community is a little startling. But it’s things like this bringing it to our attention that are going to help change that.”
January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and Fierce Freedom is holding a number of events and presentations to help bring more awareness to the community, and hopefully spark conversations in many households.
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