Human Trafficking and Teacher Awareness: Equiping Teachers with Knowledge and Resources to Combat Human Trafficking

By Regan Lookadoo[1]

Human Trafficking: A Modern Form of Slavery

Human trafficking is a criminal activity that is increasing rapidly throughout the world (Polaris Project, 2014a), and it is estimated to produce yearly profits of $15.5 billion in developed countries alone (International Labor Office Geneva, 2005). Human trafficking is a global problem that is present in all countries including the United States (United Nations office on Drugs and Crime, 2006). According to the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking organization (n.d.), “The United States is one of the top three destination points for trafficked victims, along with Japan and Australia” and within the United States “California, New York, Texas and Nevada are the top destination states”. Human trafficking has many labels including, “forced labor, involuntary domestic servitude, sex trafficking, bonded labor, forced child labor and the impressments of child soldiers into army units” (Wilson, 2011 p. 2). Each of these terms including the term human trafficking has one very important word omitted…slavery. Most people when they hear the term slavery conjure up images of slavery of the past—a slavery that was legal, largely defined by race, and abolished. Contrary to those beliefs, human slavery is more prevalent today than at any other time in our history (Polaris Project, 2014a). The challenge with slavery today is that it is largely invisible. Its invisibility can be due to the fact that trafficked people often represent marginalized populations who are enslaved in labor and services that occur in places that are sometimes hidden from the mainstream; however, that is not always the case. Many enslaved adults and children are trafficked into places where there is daily interaction with people living in local communities all across America. The invisibility lies within the onlooker who is unaware that human trafficking is present here in the United States. Because of this, such lack of awareness enables the crime to exist and prosper. It is possible that the first step in raising awareness of human trafficking is to begin using the term modern slavery. President Barack Obama echoed these concerns when he too urged the United States to recognize that trafficking occurs in its borders and that human trafficking should be called what it is: “modern slavery” (as cited in Flock, 2012, para. 3). Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, from the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, agrees stating that slavery is “uncomfortable”; “and it’s okay to look into this dark place, and name the evil for what it really is” (as cited in Flock, 2012, para. 4).

The Trafficker and the Victim

            It is difficult to know how many people worldwide are enslaved. Kevin Bales’ research with the Free the Slaves (2013a) organization estimates that there could be as many as 21-30 million people in human bondage; however, the U.S. Department of State’s 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report calculates the range to be four to twenty-seven million. Regardless of the exact numbers of enslaved victims, human trafficking is a monumental problem and one that flourishes because of simple supply and demand forces. The victims of human trafficking often represent groups of people who are underprivileged, impoverished, or unwanted. Sadly, the supply of these individuals is vast. For example, David Batstone (2010), founder and author of Not for Sale, states that “widespread poverty and social inequality ensure a pool of recruits as deep as the ocean” (p. 10). Unfortunately, the demand for enslaved victims is also abundant. Consumers’ uninformed desire to buy cheap goods and manufacturers’ focus on profits cause products to be made under conditions where the working individual is not paid a fair wage or any wage at all. Likewise, sexual objectification and the oppression of women fuel the demand for commercial sex trafficking. According to the United States Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act (TVPA) of 2000, labor trafficking is “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery” (p. 1470). Likewise, the TVPA (2000) states sex trafficking occurs when, “a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age” (p.1470).  The common theme in both of these definitions is the element of force, fraud, or coercion.

Force, fraud, or coercion in labor trafficking can often mean bodily or emotional abuse that is used to manipulate the victim; tactics used to deceive the individual into thinking he or she is going to work at a legitimate job with real wages; and threats of abuse to a victim or his or her family as well as threats related to deportation if the person is undocumented. Furthermore, it is common for victims to owe the trafficker money; yet, the victim’s wages are not used appropriately by the trafficker to pay off the debt, and the victim is placed in a situation where he or she can never pay the insurmountable debt or fees to the trafficker (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d.).

Sex trafficking is far more common than labor trafficking with 80% of trafficking cases involving sex and 19% involving labor (Kangaspunta, 2003). Victims of sex trafficking experience similar forms of force, fraud, or coercion as labor trafficking. They experience physical and emotional abuse including rape, shame, embarrassment, and guilt. Likewise, victims of sex trafficking are manipulated to believe their life will improve if they work with or follow the trafficker. More specifically, sex traffickers’ use two unique forms of coercion finesse pimping and guerilla pimping (Smith & Coloma, 2009). Through finesse pimping the trafficker shows insincere affection towards the victim by providing the victim with expensive material objects and/or necessities.  Eventually, the victim grows dependent on the trafficker, and, at that point, the trafficker demands that the victim engage in commercial sex to continue the relationship. Finesse pimping is the most common form of coercion with victims because it is a tactic that effectively manipulates vulnerable women and girls. Traffickers also use guerilla pimping which relies upon more explicit forms of abuse through brutal assaults and hostile terrorization of the victim (Smith & Coloma, 2009).

Despite the method of recruitment into labor or sex trafficking, traffickers successfully prey upon the vulnerabilities of their victims. Common vulnerabilities of victims of labor trafficking include lack of documentation of the victim, the inability of the victim to speak the language of the country into which they are trafficked, and an overall lack of resources of the victim (Deshpande & Nour, 2013). The United States Department of Justice Report in 2005, estimates between 14,500 to 17,500 foreign individuals are brought to America each year under trafficking conditions. Furthermore, between January 2008 and June 2010, 67% of labor trafficking cases involved individuals without legal status and 63% of labor trafficking victims were Hispanic (Banks & Kyckelhahn, 2011). Undocumented labor trafficking victims are reluctant to report the mistreatment they suffer by the hand of their trafficker because they often fear deportation and harm for either themselves or a family member. Moreover, labor trafficking victims often work in remote settings such as agricultural work on farms or domestic service in homes, hotels, or restaurants which further limits the victim’s ability to seek help (Polaris Project, 2014b).

Vulnerabilities of sex trafficking victims typically include women and girls who are poor and unwanted. For example, most of the girls who are trafficked are “runaways” or “thrownaways” (Estes & Weiner, 2001, p. 29). In fact, it is predicted that a young girl who runs away in the United States will be contacted by someone involved with sex trafficking within 48 hours (Spangenberg, 2001). The United States Department of State, (2005) reports that one million children or more are trafficked for sex annually across the world. Sex trafficking occurs under many different situations including “commercial sex work such as prostitution, but also pornography, exotic dancing, stripping, live sex shows, mail-order brides, military prostitution, and sexual tourism” (Deshpande & Nour, 2013, e23). The profits from a sex trafficked woman or girl continue year after year which explains why human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal activity in the world. A trafficker can sell humans again and again, yielding profits across several years, unlike drug and arms sales where profits are limited to the one transaction (Desphpande & Nour, 2013).

Child Trafficking in the United States

            According to the International Labor Office Geneva (2002) 1.2 million children are trafficked annually worldwide; however, the full extent of this industry with children is largely unknown. For example, it is estimated 100,000 to 300,000 children in the United States are vulnerable to sex trafficking every year.  These boys and girls are being trafficked at young ages in the United States—an average of 12-14 years of age for girls and 11-13 years of age for boys (Estes & Weiner, 2001). In addition to the vulnerabilities of children who are runaways, children who are abused, live in poverty, and/or suffer from a lack of self-confidence or a psychological disorder are also uniquely susceptible to traffickers. Their vulnerability is exaggerated even more if they are not legal citizens and do not speak the language (Polaris Project, 2011).

Traffickers of children are skilled at identifying at-risk populations. They intentionally pursue children “ [at] bus stations, parks, and youth shelters”; “[in] juvenile courts and juvenile justice facilities”; “[at]family court and foster care facilities”; and “outside of junior high and high schools, in shopping center, parks, and other popular sites” (Polaris Project, 2011, p.6) . Traffickers lure children by using same-age youth, online advertisements, and/or social media websites as recruitment tools. They also prey upon children’s sense of loyalty to their loved ones in an effort to make the victims believe they must earn money for their families (Polaris Project, 2011). In cases where the child has been abandoned by his or her family or has run away from home, the trafficker can quickly step in and act as a father-figure even requiring the young victim to call him “Daddy” (Walker-Rodriguez & Hill, 2011, p.3). Tragically, traffickers are not always strangers to their victims. In fact, traffickers can be peers, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and significant others including spouses (Polaris Project, 2011).

Traffickers often are engaged in efforts at “breaking-down” (Polaris Project, 2011, p. 2) the young victim so they can obtain ultimate power over the victim through means of “physical force, branding, sexual assault, confinement, [and] torture” (Polaris Project, n.d. as cited in Polaris Project, 2011, p.2). Additionally traffickers might also enslave their victims by taking away their legal documents or requiring the victim to pay fees to the trafficker (Polaris Project, n.d. as cited in Polaris Project, 2011).  Besides feelings of fear, these extremely harsh tactics of the trafficker can occasionally cause the victim to develop “positive feelings” toward the trafficker commonly referred to as Stockholm syndrome (Fabrique, Romano, Vecchi, & Van Hasselt, 2007, p.12).  These young victims are isolated, scared, and confused. They are forced to engage in sex trafficking in familiar and unfamiliar places. For example some victims are taken to faraway cities to engage in sex via “interstate sex trafficking” (U.S. Department of Justice, 2009); while other victims are forced to generate funds from sex in their own communities by a trafficker who might even be a family member or a gang member. Regardless of where the trafficking occurs, it is extraordinarily difficult for victims to flee or to report the trafficking to the police because they fear the trafficker will use violence against them or other family members and they might also feel a confused sense of loyalty to the trafficker (Polaris Project, 2011).

While sex trafficking is the most common form of human trafficking among youth, labor trafficking also occurs. Youth can be made to “work in the home as domestic servants, in small businesses or restaurants (which may or may not be owned or managed by the family), in agriculture, or in factories” (Polaris Project, 2011, p.3). Also, “traveling sales crews” prey upon youth by using fake ads to deceive victims into believing sales jobs will be fun opportunities to travel and make money; however, these jobs take youth into unknown locations, force them to work alone, and require them to meet unrealistic goals while they have limited resources for their basic needs (Polaris Project, 2011, p. 7).

The signs of a child being trafficked are numerous and they are similar to behaviors exhibited by abused children. Polaris Project (2011) identified warning signs that are commonly displayed by children who are trafficked. For example, children who are trafficked might exhibit physical signs of “neglect”; “physical abuse”; “addiction”; and “exhaustion” (p.7). They might be “withdrawn”; have “knowledge of the commercial sex industry”; have “an explicitly sexual online profile”; or have “large amounts of cash” (p.8). Consequently, these physical and behavioral signs affect the student’s ability to perform well in school. Academically a student might have “unexcused absences”; “inconsistencies in his/her story when accounting his/her life outside of school”; or he/ she might discuss “suspicious job offers or situations” (pp.8-9) that could be an alert to teachers that there is a problem.

Human Trafficking Awareness and Teachers

In 2012, President Obama unveiled a new approach to combating human trafficking. This approach focused on raising awareness of human trafficking among people who work with vulnerable populations such as “law enforcement officers, bus and truck inspectors, teachers, and educators” (Flock, 2012, para. 4). This initiative is now seen at the state level where human trafficking task forces’ are also focusing their efforts on raising awareness among educators. For example, Ohio educated it’s “teachers, parents, community members, and students on human trafficking” through online training sessions that were developed by the Prevention, Education, and Awareness Subcommittee of Ohio’s Human Trafficking Taskforce (Ohio’s Attorney General’s Office Human Trafficking Report, 2012, p. 4). Furthermore, the House Education Committee in Virginia has currently supported House Bill 993 that requires all individuals seeking a teacher’s license to receive human trafficking training (Adams, 2014). As more and more teachers become trained on the warning signs of human trafficking, they will be better equipped to assist students who are at risk.

Surprisingly, child victims of human trafficking will often remain in school despite the horrible circumstances they find themselves in outside of school. Because of this the school day might be the only time when a child victim is free from the trafficker. Hence, the importance of teachers being equipped with knowledge about human trafficking so they can recognize signs in their students and adequately educate children about human trafficking in general (Polaris Project, 2011). The U.S. Department of Education Office of Safe and Healthy Students developed a Fact Sheet for Schools (n.d.) that provides information about human trafficking, signs of trafficking in school-aged children, as well as information on reporting human trafficking. For example, teachers who suspect trafficking should abide by their schools’ guidelines for informing school officials and law enforcement of possible child exploitation or mistreatment (Polaris Project, 2011). However, in addition teachers are encouraged to contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) which “is a program of Polaris Project, a non-profit, non-governmental organization working exclusively on the issue of human trafficking” (Polaris Project, 2014c, para. 2). Individuals can call the hotline to “report a tip”; “connect with [local] anti-trafficking services”; or “request training or technical assistance, general information or specific anti-trafficking resources” (Polaris Polaris, 2014c, para. 3).

In addition to teachers gaining knowledge of human trafficking, it is also beneficial for teachers to educate students about the dangers of human trafficking. Dragiewicz (2008) outlines important areas teachers should consider when they incorporate the topic of trafficking into their teaching. These areas include “privilege, power, and oppression”; “attitudes about poverty”; “racism” and “’othering’” of different cultures”; “attitudes about migration”; “attitudes about sex work and sex workers”; “attitudes about gender, sex and sexuality”; “variation within feminism”; “data reliability issues”; “history of trafficking”; and “definitional and terminological debates” (pp.189-192).  Aside from overall themes to guide discussions of human trafficking, there are also numerous online curriculum resources for teachers to use in the classroom as they inform students of the issue. For example, the Frederick Douglas Family Initiatives (2013) provides resources that link past slavery to modern slavery; the Free the Slaves organization (2013b) discusses modern slavery in terms of slavery of the past as well as human rights issues; the Anti-Slavery organization (n.d.) suggest strategies of integrating human trafficking into the classroom and schools; and the You Can Stop Slavery organization (2014) provides trafficking curriculum for different age groups. As teachers become informed about trafficking they can use these online resources to creatively teach students about the dangers of human trafficking both in the United States and abroad.

Human trafficking or modern slavery is an increasingly common criminal enterprise that preys upon youth and children. When teachers are equipped with knowledge about sex and labor trafficking, they can “create the first line of defense against human trafficking in their communities” (Benz, 2014); and in turn the students they protect and educate can become empowered to fight human trafficking in their future.  When one considers the fact that abolitionists of the past stood up against and successfully ended slavery when it was legal in this country; imagine the possibilities when today’s youth are equipped and empowered to end modern slavery in a world where slavery is illegal in every country. David Batstone (2010) describes the modern abolitionist as someone who is similar to abolitionists of the past in that, “these modern heroes do not expend their energy handicapping the odds stacked against the antislavery movement. They simply refuse to accept a world where one individual can be held as the property of another” (p.13). Awareness is the key to fighting modern slavery. Once modern slavery becomes understood it will no longer be invisible and teachers, students, parents, and entire communities will know what to expect, where to look, who to help, and how to join together in the fight against modern day slavery.


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[1] Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Regan Lookadoo, Department of Psychology, 400 East College Street, Georgetown, KY 40324. Email:

Regan L. Lookadoo is Professor of Psychology at Georgetown College, Georgetown, Kentucky. Her research interests include women’s issues at small, liberal arts colleges, advising practices at small, liberal arts colleges, teaching practices, and human trafficking. She has published in the areas of aging, imagery, mental retardation, language comprehension, and memory. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, and is a 1997 graduate of Campbellsville University.

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