Fighting Off the Wolves: ED and HHS Host Landmark Human Trafficking Prevention Event

The four panelists at the human trafficking event are seated on the podium as the audience looks on.Human trafficking, exploiting people through forced labor and commercial sex, is modern-day slavery.  ED’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students maintains that schools can and should be safe places where students can thrive.  Unfortunately, the trafficking of America’s students, both for labor and for commercial sex, is a dark presence in our nation’s schools, jeopardizing the health, safety, and the very lives of students.

In late October, ED hosted a powerful event in tandem with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), during which a panel of parents, survivors, and subject matter experts, along with representatives from ED, HHS, and the community, discussed ways in which we all need to be working to keep our children out of harm’s way.  In addition, attendees were privileged to view an advance screening of “I Am Little Red,” a groundbreaking short film co-written by young trafficking survivors and aimed at students.

Human trafficking involves exploiting a person through force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of forced labor, commercial sex, or both.  Victims of human trafficking include men, women, boys, girls, and transgender individuals from other nations lured by the promise of a better life in the United States, as well as adults and children who were born and raised in the United States.  In fact, many child victims of human trafficking are students in the American school system.  School administrators and staff need to be aware that cases of child trafficking are being reported in communities throughout the nation.  No community—urban, rural, or suburban—school, socioeconomic group, or student demographic is immune.

Federal Actions to Combat Human Trafficking

At ED’s event, which focused on trafficking awareness and prevention, officials from ED and HHS opened the session by discussing actions the federal government is taking to combat trafficking, as well as future plans for policies and procedures.  David Esquith, the Director of ED’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students (OSHS) in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, spoke about ED’s role in working with school communities.

“We inform school communities about the problem,” he said.  “We provide technical assistance; we encourage [schools] to embed human trafficking into their emergency operations plans.  And we work with partners at the federal, state and local level to come up with solutions to this very serious problem.  We’ve put out a guide called Human Trafficking in America’s Schools.  It’s intended to address and help schools respond to this issue, to recognize the problem, and to take the proper course of action.”

He also called out the multi-pronged approach ED is using in the fight against trafficking.  “We host webinars, we use social media, and we present at national conferences,” he said, pointing to four technical assistance centers based in OSHS: the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments,, the National Technical Assistance Center for the Education of Neglected or Delinquent Children and Youth , the National Center on Homeless Education, and the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center.

Grassroots Activity

Esquith then shared success stories, noting that individuals in school communities already have been spurred to action as a direct result of working with ED.  “Upon reading the guide, we had one parent inspired to set up an organization called Impact Virginia,” he said.  “She is planning a summit in 2018.  It’s that kind of grassroots activity that we hope the work at the Department and our partners at HHS have inspired and supported.”

“When schools reach out to us, to all of you, we have to be there for them,” he said, charging the audience to view trafficking as a human rights crisis.  “It’s our responsibility as not only the adults, but as the professionals in this field.  That’s why we’re here today.”

Modern Day Slavery

Charles Keckler, an associate deputy secretary at HHS, reflected upon our nation’s great orators to conceptualize the scale of the problem.  “Trafficking is modern day slavery, and it put me in mind of what Lincoln said:  If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong,” Keckler said.  “That tells us, if trafficking is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”

Keckler outlined the steps HHS is taking as they approach trafficking from a public health perspective, discussing the programs of the Office on Trafficking and Persons, which funds a national network of victim assistance programs to support survivors of trafficking, and collaborates with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to provide resources and information on trafficking through the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.  He also mentioned that the HHS-funded National Human Trafficking Hotline increasingly is expanding beyond just a voice number to texting and social media strategies to engage youth affected by human trafficking.

Keckler also commented that HHS is paying close attention to the potential for trafficking in the nation’s child welfare system, commenting on how HHS’s Children’s Bureau manages grants to address trafficking in the child welfare system.  The Family and Youth Services Bureau also addresses issues of human trafficking that involve runaway and homeless youth.

“The people and the children that are affected by trafficking are far too often those who, to put it simply, don’t have somebody looking out for them,” Keckler noted.  “So… what we have to do as a government, as a department, and as a society, is to help them look out for themselves, and to provide resources and people and communities who can help look out for them.”

“Because, as we can see today, the wolves are out there.”

Movie Sneak Preview

The session then segued to the exciting advance screening of “I Am Little Red,” by filmmaker Mary Mazzio.  Mazzio introduced the eight-minute short by discussing why she wanted to create a product that would speak directly to children.  “We’ve heard from survivor after survivor that none of them had a clue that this was happening, and they turned around and there it was,” she told the audience.  “Many of these children were three to six months in to what seemed to be a relationship with a close friend, friend of a brother, or friend of an uncle, without understanding.”

“Then, all of a sudden, they were in a room all alone with two adult men.”

To achieve her goal, Mazzio worked directly with young trafficking survivors, who gave her specific situations and language to use.  She also consulted with parents who had experienced trafficking of a child, and trafficking survivors who now are parents seeking to break the cycle of intergenerational abuse and trauma.  As a result, “I Am Little Red” uses the familiar story of Little Red Riding Hood to depict four common situations that can lead to trafficking, and to help young children recognize warning signs.

Panelists Share Their Stories

Following the screening, a panel of parents, survivors, and subject matter experts shared their perspectives on how trusted adults can prevent trafficking.  The panel consisted of Yvonne Ambrose, whose 16-year old daughter became a victim of human trafficking; Elizabeth Corey, a former trafficking victim who now is an advocate and life coach for trauma survivors; and Savannah Sanders, a former trafficking victim who founded the resource website Sex Trafficking Prevention.  Each woman shared the similarities and differences in their stories, emphasizing what could have been done differently to help them.

Ambrose, who recently testified before the Senate, talked about how trafficking can lurk anywhere, even in places that look innocuous, and on websites that sound harmless.  Ambrose’s daughter, Desiree Robinson, was led into a trafficking situation through a classified advertising website.  When Robinson realized what was happening and tried to escape in December 2016, she was violently beaten and murdered.

Corey emphasized the idea that children can be trafficked anywhere, commenting that traffickers can lurk in schools and in average communities.  “A lot of times when I speak with people who are just hearing about trafficking for the first time, the first thing they say is ‘Oh yeah, I hear that happens in Asia,’ ” she said.  “Or, if we’re really lucky, they might see media of it happening in the U.S.  They’ll say ‘Yes, it happens to foster children, right?  I think I saw something on that.’  This is about bringing it to everyone, so that those people who are parents in the schools, around the country can understand that this is happening in their child’s school.  It is happening.  I don’t care what school it is, it’s happening in their child’s school.”

Elaborate Cross-Section of Victims

The panelists shared with the audience the necessity of not viewing trafficking victims as a homogenous group with a specific profile.  Sanders pointed out that the elaborate cross-section of victims creates complexity in looking for red flags, because exploitation can happen in many different ways.

“We often kind of see this ideology of what trafficking is, with stories about pimps with stables and multiple young girls, but… it can be parents that are trafficking their children for rent, drugs, or money,” she said.  “It can be something that happens to somebody that’s experienced abuse.  It could be somebody that’s recruited online.  It’s not a simple issue.  We have to look at the complexities of children and their families and their systems, and we have to start creating change within an entire system.”

She also pointed out how many victims are trafficked by a familiar person.  “A lot of my work in training parents is actually trying to break that mentality of stranger danger,” she observed.  “We tend to focus on the people that might look different from us, or act different from us, or have different jobs than us, but … over 90 percent of victims know their abuser.  It’s about what they’re doing, not what they look like.”

Interconnected to Other Forms of Trauma

Corey then shared part of her story, which was unique in that her biological parents were her traffickers.  While her life looked perfect from the outside, there were unimaginable horrors occurring on the inside.

”My parents were married, and they were people in society that everybody thought were powerful and great and good,” she told the crowd.  “I grew up while being trafficked in that type of home, and nobody was really paying attention.  I really want to stress that we have to take the spotlight off of trafficking just by itself, and really look at the way trafficking is interconnected and interrelated to other forms of trauma.  There was plenty of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and neglect that was happening within my house.  Not all parents have the best interests of their child at heart.”

Sanders outlined how in her situation, a long history of sexual abuse and trauma made her a prime target.  “When I was trafficked at 16, I was trafficked by a gang, because I had a long history of sexual abuse and trauma,” she recalled.  “One of the things that I talk about in my book is the way a trafficker can spot a vulnerable child from a mile away, yet most of the adults in their lives cannot spot that vulnerable child.  By the time I met the man that would traffic me, I was so broken down, so vulnerable, so hurt, and in so much pain, he didn’t even have to use any of those tactics.  He just simply put his hand on my back and told me I’d be working for him.  My life to that point groomed me for that moment.”

“We have to flip that script,” she continued.  “Instead of a vulnerable child being available to be exploited, we need to be seeing that vulnerable child so we can love the hell out of them while they grow up and release those vulnerabilities.”

Educating Ourselves

Corey noted that educators have the best opportunity outside of the family to recognize trauma.  “Educators … have a lot of responsibility to see the traumatic behaviors,” she said, even as she acknowledged that teachers already have full plates, and it is asking a lot to challenge them to step into the realm of recognizing traumatic home lives.  “Yes, I’m putting a ton on you, but it’s so important that we educate ourselves as to what it looks like.  Trafficking, sex, internet safety — all of these things come into our schools.  The more we can get kids to disclose if something is wrong at home, the better.”

The panelists examined the role technology and social media are playing in sex trafficking today, observing that children are exposed to technology at ever-younger ages, and that the anonymity of the internet creates dangerous situations, such that parents need to be well-versed in the potential dangers accessible on every computer and mobile device.  “Nowadays, with social media, you don’t know who’s on the other side talking to you,” said Ambrose.  “It could be an adult, or it could be another kid who is trying to befriend you to traffic you.  We need to educate ourselves, we need to educate our educators, and we need to educate our health care providers as well.”

A Hopeful Note

The hopeful note on which all three panelists agreed was that a child at the intersection of trauma and trafficking has the opportunity to avoid danger if an adult in their life can reach out a hand.  “I’m not expecting teachers to be therapists,” said Sanders.  “Every single classroom in America [contains] traumatized children.  There’s no way to get around that.  But what are we doing to incorporate support systems in our schools for trauma?  It’s about identification.  It’s about just seeing a child.  Now that I’m an adult and I look back on my life, I know who my abusers were.  I know what they did to me.  It was horrific and it was sad.  But do you know who I remember?  I remember every safe person that came into my life through that process.  They saw me and they loved me.  When I felt seen, I felt connected.  That’s my call to action.”

Read the HHS story on this event.

View the event in its entirety on Mediasite.


Jennifer Padgett is the deputy director of internal communications in the Office of Communications and Outreach.