Recently national headlines contained news about children and teens missing in Iowa. It’s always a concern when young people go missing, and in this situation the concern was they were victims of human trafficking. There’s been a lot of chatter about whether the numbers are correct and whether or not the news and social media accounts are accurate.

At ETKM we wanted to know the truth about what’s happening in our area. We talked with Kelly Culpepper, Development Director for the nonprofit organization For the Silent. Here are excerpts from that interview.

Can you share some statistics on sexual exploitation in our area?

The University of Texas says more than 79,000 people have been victims of sex trafficking in our state. Providing those victims with care costs $6.6 billion a year.

Sex trafficking is something that’s hard to put numbers to, because it’s not out in the open. Since 2012, For the Silent (FTS) has identified and assisted 162 victims of sexual exploitation in East Texas.

What does sex trafficking look like in East Texas?

I think a lot of people have seen the movie “Taken,” and think it’s where girls are dragged out from under the bed and physically being taken. That can happen, but what we see at our organization, that’s not typically the case. Girls and boys can both be victims, but our organization works with girls.

Really it’s more like a pimp culture where pimps prey on minor girls who are vulnerable to be trafficked. They persuade them through a relationship and try to get them to a place where they feel like they don’t have another option.

How do they lure girls?

Pimps identify a girl’s wants or needs and use those to get close. Contact can happen in person or online. He might offer her nice things like getting her hair done, getting her nails done, purses, jewelry or other comforts. If she’s hungry he’ll offer her something to eat. If she needs a place to stay he might provide it.

They tell the girl she’s beautiful. They say I love you. This girl feels like she has a boyfriend but in reality the goal is to pimp her out, to exploit her.

Once he has created the relationship with this girl, he turns the table on her and says, “We need this money and I’ve done all this for you.” He says she has to repay him.

There are a lot of different ways it could happen. Some pimps use fraud or coercion or force. Some threaten to hurt their family members or go after a sister. Usually when a girl is exploited, she’s doing what she does out of fear.

What makes a girl more likely to be a victim?

Any minor can be at risk, but some or more vulnerable. Runaways, kids in and out of the foster care system, boys or girls who are alone a lot or don’t have a constant place of comfort or home are at risk.

How do you work with East Texas youth to prevent sex trafficking?

I Have a Voice is our prevention program. We go in to child advocacy centers, middle schools, high schools etc. We offer summer programs at apartment complexes. Every week there’s a topic.

We teach girls to be aware of what’s going on in their community and to look out for exploiters. We give them tools so they can see when people are trying to lure them in and so they can watch out for their peers.

The goal is at the end of the course for each girl to know she can stand up. She can say no. She can look out for others and speak out when they see one person trying to exploit another.

We also teach them the myths of pimp culture. The movie Pretty Woman glamorized prostitution. We want girls to see what’s really going on and put a face on what a pimp actually looks like. We help them understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships. We don’t tell them what to do, we just help them realize it for themselves.

FTS also provides professional training for healthcare and social workers, foster parents and community members who want to help.

Fight Back against Human Trafficking With ETKM

For the Silent combats human trafficking by spreading awareness and being vigilant. East Texas Krav Maga is working to do the same. We also want to train youth to defend themselves so if they’re in a situation where someone tries to force them to do something they don’t want to, they can get away and go home safe.

Right now with any new family membership, teenagers between 13 and 19 years old train for free. Sign up on our website or get in touch to find out more.

If you’re a current ETKM student you can help by sharing this article so more people know what’s happening in our area. Let’s work together to make our community safe for our children and teens.

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