Some may view the problem of human trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children as a global issue that occurs most frequently in countries halfway around the world.
It’s not. Within the greater Chicago area, it is estimated that thousands of women, girls, and boys are victims.
Frank Massolini, director of the Chicago Salvation Army PROMISE program and founder of Anne’s House, a residential program for exploited women and girls, says the problem isn’t getting the attention it deserves.
“With the internet, it isn’t only the guy on the street corner, it is people hiding behind a screen, said Mussolini, one of five panelists who spoke to a packed auditorium at Aurora University during its Human Trafficking: Global Problem forum last week.
Special Agent Tara J. Smith with the FBI’s Chicago Violent Crimes against Children project said her office has seen an increase in child predators grooming children to self-manufacture pornography.
Sexual predators meet children online in unsuspecting places such as playing games like Words with Friends. These predators begin to communicate with children through Snapchat or other social media to gain their trust.
“These children are in their own rooms and believe they are safe,” she said.
The adults groom children to expose themselves and/or perform sexual acts and later extort the child to perform additional acts, she said.
In addition to children being groomed online, Caralee Murphy with the anti-human trafficking organization Abolish Injustice in the 21st Century, said children who suffer from poverty, homelessness, abuse, or drug addiction also often are targets.
Sometimes the grooming process will begin with an offer for food for those who are hungry or protection from others who are abusing the victim, she said.
In comparison to other countries where victims are lured away from their homes with a false job offer that will pay well enough to feed themselves and their families in the United States, Murphy said, girls often will be groomed to believe that they are “loved and being taken care of,”
The girls will falsely believe that the trafficker is her boyfriend and he will take care of her, she added.
Local and regional officials are fighting back.
In Will County, a specialized High Technology Crimes Unit was formed in 2012 to track down and arrest predators trading child pornography.
“In the last three years, we have arrested more than 100 individuals in possession of child pornography,” said James Glasgow, the Will County State’s Attorney and an AU panelist.
These arrests led to 80 convictions for production and/or possession of child pornography.
“In one-third of these cases, the defendants also were charged with molestation of a child,” he said. “This is a very serious epidemic. These are very dangerous people. One of our recent convictions was a 21-year-old studying to become an elementary school teacher.”
The unit is being developed as a model that could be replicated in smaller communities throughout Illinois who do not have the resources to form their own high tech crime efforts.
In addition, Will County soon will begin using a specially-trained dog that will be able to sniff out electronic media storage devices during home searches.
Glasgow said a similarly trained dog was used in the high-profile case of former Subway spokesman Jared Fogle. In that case, a Labrador retriever named Bear led investigators to hidden electronic media devices stored in Fogle’s home.
Additionally statewide, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has signed two bills aimed at reducing the number of victims of human trafficking in Illinois.
One bill created a human trafficking task force and the other extends services to immigrant survivors of human trafficking.
“Modern slavery is a reality — and today, it takes the form of sexual exploitation,” said State Sen. Karen McConnaughay (R–St. Charles), chief sponsor of one of the bills.
“In the past nine years, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center has identified nearly 30,000 trafficking victims,” she added. “Those numbers are absolutely unacceptable in our communities. My goal in creating this Task Force is to take an active step towards ending the cycle of sexual abuse of children and adults across the state.”
— State, local leaders look to curb child sexual exploitation in Illinois —