Child sex trafficking is a problem, but QAnon isn’t helping

Lexi Johanson, left, holds signs with Jesse Babcock during a protest at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. | Yukai Peng, Deseret News

A look inside the #SaveOurChildren campaign and the realities of child sex trafficking in the U.S.

On a sweltering day in early September, about 15 people stood outside the Utah state Capitol with signs covered in red handprints that said, “#SaveOurChildren” and “End Child Trafficking.” Every few minutes, a car driving by the small-scale protest honked in support.

#SaveOurChildren is a social media movement that has gained traction this year across platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Marches have been organized in cities all over the country, from Spokane, Washington, to Reed City, Michigan. While many well-meaning individuals with genuine concern have jumped in to support the movement, anti-child trafficking advocates warn that #SaveOurChildren is not what it seems.

The International Labor Organization estimates that there were over a million childhood victims of commercial sex exploitation in 2016. But instead of raising awareness about the realities of child trafficking, the Salt Lake City group promoted a number of unfounded allegations and false claims. They alleged that Hillary Clinton and her circle of friends are involved in child trafficking for the purposes of pedophilia and satanic human sacrifice, and that the FBI is complicit.

“I’ve done so much research,” the protest organizer said.

“Don’t trust the mainstream media,” another participant chimed in.

While many organizers, including those in Salt Lake City, say they are not affiliated with QAnon, an online conspiracy theory network, versions of the hashtag have been used in QAnon-related social media posts since 2017, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

In a town hall in Miami Thursday, the NBC moderator asked president Donald Trump if he would denounce QAnon, describing it as a “theory that Democrats are a satanic pedophile ring.”

Trump responded saying, “I know nothing about QAnon.” He added, “What I do hear about it is they are very strongly against pedophilia, and I agree with that.”

The next day, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, tweeted, “The president’s unwillingness to denounce an absurd and dangerous conspiracy theory last night continues an alarming pattern.”

Travis View, one of the hosts of a podcast called “QAnon Anonymous,” said the fact that people are spreading the #SaveOurChildren message without being aware of its QAnon origins is a new phenomenon.

Yukai Peng, Deseret News
Rebecca Ellis, 8, holds a sign during a protest at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020.
The hashtag has largely been used to spread misinformation that could distract from the real problem and make it harder for members of the public to identify actual victims of child trafficking, said Sarah Bendtsen, policy counsel for Shared Hope International, which is based in Vancouver, Washington, and strives to end child sex trafficking. She only learned about #SaveOurChildren a couple months ago, but “now it’s everywhere,” she said.

“There are some really well-intentioned people trying to raise awareness without understanding what the majority of cases look like,” said Bendtsen.

To start, she has never heard of a trafficking case in the United States involving human sacrifice, she said. She added that #SaveOurChildren is based on a premise that there is an organized effort to round up as many kids as possible and sell them into the sex trade, and that any kid, in a parking lot, or walking down the street, is at risk.

“Sure, there are outlier cases that involve kidnapping and forced movement, but the majority of the cases that we know about involve exploitation by someone the child perceives to be a person they care about: a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a family member, a friend,” said Bendtsen. According to an estimate from The Counter-Trafficking Data Collaborative, about half of child trafficking cases begin with some family member involvement.

“Raising awareness is critical, so long as you are raising awareness about factual occurrences,” Bendtsen said.

What is child trafficking?

Federal law defines child trafficking as, “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a child for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion,” according to the American Bar Association. “It also includes recruiting, enticing, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a child for or benefiting financially from the commercial sex act of a child.”

Children are victims of both labor and sex trafficking, but in the United States, child sex trafficking is more prevalent, said Lori Cohen, executive director of ECPAT USA, an anti-child trafficking organization based in Brooklyn, New York. To put it simply, child sex trafficking occurs whenever money is exchanged in return for the exploitation of a minor, even if the child is the one receiving the money, she said. It can affect children of all ages, from infants to teenagers.

It’s difficult to find accurate data on the number of child trafficking cases in the U.S. because they often go underreported, said Daniel Strong, assistant attorney general and section director for Utah’s SECURE Strike Force, which investigates and prosecutes human trafficking. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that of the nearly 26,300 runaways reported to the center in 2019, 1 in 6 were likely victims of child sex trafficking. The Polaris Project, a nonprofit that runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, identified 22,326 trafficking victims and survivors in 2019, including adults and minors. But neither of these numbers captures the entirety of the problem, Strong said.

The majority of child sex trafficking cases he sees in Utah involve kids ages 14-18, often economically vulnerable, who have been coerced into prostitution. The kids are typically not in bondage, and they have been so skillfully manipulated, they often don’t realize they are being trafficked, Strong said.

“Human trafficking is everywhere, but it is not very well understood yet by the public,” Strong said. “That disconnect between what people imagine and the cases out there that are getting missed means the more light we shine on this problem, the more cases we are going to find.”

A source of confusion

Despite the fact that Save the Children is an actual organization founded more than a century ago in the United Kingdom that has worked internationally to champion children’s rights, QAnon followers have used #SavetheChildren to spread conspiracy theories. QAnon adherents believe there is a global child trafficking ring run by a group of powerful people, or “deep-state cabal” who abuse children and generally wreak havoc on the world. When users found out that Save the Children is a real nonprofit, they pivoted to #SaveOurChildren.

“DANG IT GUYS! ‘Save The Children’ is an actual organization,” reads one Facebook post with thousands of shares.

Save the Children has partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as well as the Clinton Foundation. The author of the post accuses these charities of hurting children — without evidence — and says, “I will be using #SaveOurChildren instead.”

Save the Children wrote in an Aug. 7 statement, “While many people may choose to use our organization’s name as a hashtag to make their point on different issues, we are not affiliated or associated with any of these campaigns.”

Due to the hashtag, the National Human Trafficking Hotline has seen a surge in reports based solely on secondhand information that is publicly available through social media or news reports, according to a spokesperson from the Polaris Project.

“Since the Trafficking Hotline takes all reports seriously, these redundant reports end up doing more harm than good by diverting the limited time and resources available away from serving victims, survivors and others with more actionable information,” the spokesperson said.

Utah state Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, has also seen the #SaveOurChildren movement cause confusion. Romero was asked to speak at an August rally against child trafficking that was organized by the attorney general’s office, but the event was canceled after she and the attorney general’s office contact discovered that one of the national sponsors had ties to QAnon, Romero said.

“It’s important to check your facts and find out who you are working with,” said Romero. “It was an important lesson for me that you can’t trust blindly.”

The reality

This year, ECPAT USA’s social media following has grown and individual donations have increased slightly, Cohen said. She speculates the jump may be due in part to QAnon. But while proponents of QAnon and #SaveOurChildren have targeted politicians and A-list Hollywood celebrities like Ellen Degeneres and Chrissy Teigen with unfounded allegations of child trafficking, Cohen worries that theories about the elite will cause people to overlook the trafficking happening in their own communities.

“Who are traffickers? In reality, they’re the people we know and see every day,” Cohen said. “The people we do business with. Our local trusted authority figures. Anyone could be selling a child or purchasing the child for sexual abuse.”

Yukai Peng, Deseret News
Sariah Westfall holds a sign during a protest at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020.
Camila Zolfaghari, executive director of Street Grace, a nonprofit committed to eradicating the commercial sexual exploitation of children, noted that when a rich and famous person gets caught abusing children, the story gets a lot of attention in the news, but that only represents a tiny fraction of child trafficking cases. Street Grace identifies human trafficking as a $290 million illegal industry in major U.S. cities.

#SaveOurChildren has also been used to spread misinformation about actual news stories about trafficking and missing children, said Bendtsen. One example involves a series of viral posts about a two-week long U.S. Marshals Service sting operation in Georgia. One such post used the #SaveOurChildren hashtag and said, “How is finding 39 children in a double-wide trailer in Georgia NOT the biggest news story in America?”

But that question mischaracterizes what actually happened, according to multiple fact-checking articles. Officials rescued 26 missing children from various locations around the state, and another 13 endangered children were determined to be in safe locations as part of “Operation Not Forgotten,” according to a U.S. Marshals Service news release.

The purpose of the operation was to locate kids missing from the foster care system or the juvenile justice system. For most of the children, there were no allegations of sex trafficking victimization; they were just at-risk kids, including some who had a warrant out for their arrest, Bendtsen said.

“It’s a salacious story and one that certainly is attention-grabbing,” said Bendtsen. “But it definitely was not like a sex trafficking ring bust.”

Today, sex trafficking often starts online, said Marci Hamilton, founder and legal director of CHILD USA, a Philadelphia nonprofit committed to ending child abuse and neglect. She is also a consultant to the Jeffrey Epstein victim’s compensation program. Online exploitation of children has spiked in recent months because more kids are spending time on the internet during the pandemic, she said. The fact that many schools are closed and teachers, who are mandated reporters, don’t have their eyes on children, makes it more likely that abuse will go unnoticed, she added.

Traffickers looking to take advantage of minors, including children or teenagers, will seek them out on social media and pretend to be their friend, according to Hamilton. Once they gain a child’s trust, the trafficker will encourage the child to remove their clothing, send them explicit photographs, or even meet them in person. They will use photos, threats or the promise of money or independence, to take control of the child and force them to do things they never would have intended, Hamilton said.

“We underestimate the vulnerability of children,” said Hamilton.

The most vulnerable children include those who have already experienced sexual abuse, as well as those experiencing homelessness or financial instability who might feel pressure to make money, according to Cohen. Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and Loyola University of New Orleans found that 1 in 5 homeless children were victims of trafficking. Kids in the foster care system also face heightened risk, Cohen said.

But while traffickers tend to target kids with certain vulnerabilities, sex trafficking can happen to anyone, said Cohen.

How to help

According to Cohen, it’s important for everyone to know the warning signs of child exploitation and trafficking so they can intervene to protect the children they know. For older kids and teenagers, some behaviors to take notice of include entering and exiting the home frequently and without explanation, working long hours at a “job,” constantly speaking to unidentified “friends,” and spending money they didn’t have access to before. Children of all ages may exhibit signs of emotional distress or physical injuries and show fear of authority figures.

In addition to asking questions and intervening when they notice something suspicious, those with a desire to help end child sex trafficking should support established organizations that promote evidence-based practices, said Cohen. She said ECPAT USA has the capability to provide free training to schools anywhere in the country.

Shared Hope has a program called Ambassadors of Hope, where community members are equipped with the information they need to train others about what sex trafficking looks like and how to be more responsive, according to Bendtsen.

People can also invite representatives from Street Grace to speak virtually to their school, their class or their church, Zolfaghari said.

“If people look at this and don’t go further than a #SaveOurChildren, post or rally and don’t learn how to protect children, and don’t learn what the actual threat is, it’ll definitely do more harm than good, because they will not understand how important it is to learn how to protect and communicate with your children about the dangers of traffickers,” said Zolfaghari.

“My hope is that conversation becomes based in fact, a vehicle for raising awareness and identification for child victims and the perpetrator,” Bendtsen said.

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