KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Russ Tuttle with the Stop Trafficking Project acknowledges it may be hard for parents to connect the link between their kids using the internet to sex trafficking.
“What we're finding is with recruitment into the life of domestic minor sex trafficking, every single time social media plays a role,” Tuttle said.
Tuttle says the Stop Trafficking Project doesn't want to scare anyone, but offer parents and students more of a reality check.
“Right now, 26 percent of those kids fill out those surveys and tell us, 'I have either met a complete stranger in person I first met online,' or 'I'm active in sending nudes of myself through social media,'” said Tuttle.
Stop Trafficking Project has presented its BeAlert strategy to more than 30,000 students in three years, from elementary up to high school. They offer separate presentations to parents.
The results from a survey given out afterward show 75 percent of kids say they've looked at pornography.
“Pornography is the engine feeding domestic minor sex trafficking. This is why kids will be lured into something and next thing they know they're in a strip club dancing, kind of an entry level into what's coming next,” said Tuttle.
Children's Mercy Hospital is in the top five percent in the United States in the volume of sexual assault victims they see, and they correlate it to pornography.
Stop Trafficking Project refers to an Arizona State University sex trafficking study that examined 15 cities, including Kansas City. It found that an estimated 106,624 men in the metro responded to online sex ads.
"So how do we end up with 14.5 percent of the male population over the age of 18 now willing to actually purchase someone for sex? And remember, if one in five images of porn is a child, and this is what's being participated in, then increasingly we're seeing domestic minor sex trafficking," Tuttle said.
Getting real with parents and kids
Ridgeview, Manor Hill, and Lillian Schumacher elementary school parents in Liberty took part in a BeAlert presentation Tuesday night.
“From a parent standpoint, we think they’re innocent, but he goes through all the layers of these apps our kids have and how easy it is within just a few clicks that our students are really exposed to things that just would scare us to death if we really knew that,” said Ridgeview Elementary School principal Tyler Shannon.
The school isn’t sure if they’ll present the BeAlert presentation to the students yet.
“Do we want to look at presenting this information in a more refined way with our fifth-graders in our student population, or do we feel our best end to keeping our kids safe really right now is through our parents?” Shannon said.
Tuttle said the presentations aren’t the answer to stop all sex trafficking, but it starts a conversation.
“The earlier in a child's life we can identify a vulnerability before it leads to the next vulnerability and the next vulnerability, that's helping to combat this because combating sex trafficking never looks like ‘sex trafficking,’" Tuttle said.
The point of these presentations, he says, is to make sure adults are ready to respond if and when a child feels comfortable enough to tell someone that something inappropriate has happened.
Tuttle said just last November, students at one rural Kansas school came forward saying a man was preying on children. That man was subsequently arrested and charged charged with child sex crimes.
They say it's a good thing when students come forward because they work with trauma-informed counselors, health care professionals, FBI, Homeland Security and local law enforcement.
Each situation is different, but the predator's pattern is usually the same.
"A recent example, a 14 year old boy came to me at the end of the presentation and said, 'I'm addicted to porn, What can you do to help me,'" said Tuttle. "Girl came to me, 7th grader, and she said 'I started taking my clothes off and started sending boys naked pictures of myself when I was in fourth grade.' It's not because we're amazing presenters, it's because the topic is exactly where these kids are living."
Stop Trafficking Project says their presentations aren't going to solve the problem, but at least get the conversation going.