On a warm spring day in Hunt Valley, Baltimore County school social workers are huddled at tables in a conference room facing a difficult scenario.
“Justin is 10 years old and lives with his mother in an apartment in the city. His mother struggles financially,” a slide projected on a screen reads.
“Twice a month, Justin goes to visit their building's landlord. He has sex with the landlord so that his mother doesn't have to pay rent. As long as Justin complies, the landlord will not evict him and his mother."
The question for the social workers gathered in the room is, “Trafficking or not trafficking?”
Child sex trafficking—the commercial sexual exploitation of children —is happening in Baltimore County schools. It’s happening in Baltimore City schools, and in fact all across Maryland.
Justin is 10 years old and lives with his mother in an apartment in the city. His mother struggles financially. Twice a month, Justin goes to visit their building's landlord. He has sex with the landlord so that his mother doesn't have to pay rent. As long as Justin complies, the landlord will not evict him and his mother.
Alicia McDowell, executive director at Araminta Freedom Initiative —a nonprofit dedicated to fighting child sex trafficking in Maryland notes, “We’re seeing cases being reported in elementary schools, middle schools and high schools. Every child can be at risk for trafficking.”
“It’s not a new thing; it’s not something that’s all of the sudden occurring. It’s been occurring all along,” says Carrie Freshour, director of Prevention and Intervention and Education at Araminta.
Freshour and her Araminta colleagues have been conducting “Human Trafficking Prevention and Education” training workshops for Baltimore County educators for several months. The aim of the pilot program is to help educators recognize and report signs of child sex trafficking.
“Educators are uniquely positioned to identify the potential for child sex trafficking in preventing it and intervening very early,” according to McDowell.
Hope International estimates that 100,000 children are victims of sex trafficking in the United States each year. In 2014, the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force (MHTTF) Victim Services Committee provided services to 381 victims of sex trafficking. At least 124 of those victims were children.
In 2015, Araminta partnered with Baltimore County, Baltimore City and Prince George’s County schools in a pilot program to help educators identify and report child sex trafficking. Many victims are recruited while attending school and remain in school while they are being sold for sex.
The pilot grew out of a 2012 law passed by the Maryland legislature that changed the definition of child abuse to include child human trafficking. The new law triggered that mandatory reporters—broadly, those who work with students and children—are required to report suspected human trafficking.
Attendees of the workshops are trained to look for changes in attendance and outer appearance.
“One of the things that happens is that when a trafficker starts grooming a child, things in their life being to change,” says McDowell.
“A child who might not have the means or whose parents might not have the means to provide certain things might start showing up to school with new clothing or jewelry or an extra cell phone and a teacher is uniquely identified to see those changes day to day,” she explains.
Educators are also trained to pay close attention to what students are saying.
“There's a whole subculture of language that is involved,” says Dr. Michael Ford, school safety manager for Baltimore County Public Schools. “Whether it be on the trafficker’s side or the person who's being trafficked. We want our educators to know those buzz words so they can be in tune in their classrooms.”
And it’s not just teachers who get the training. While there is extensive training for teachers, social workers and administrators, everyone who comes into contact with children in the pilot program receives an hour training session including bus drivers, coaches and contracted staff.
“It might not just be a teacher who recognizes the signs,” says McDowell. “It might be somebody who works in food services who might have developed a relationship with that child and the child feels safe telling them something that might be happening.”
Once the pilot results are analyzed, the aim is to get the program integrated into schools across Maryland. They’re looking at a timeline of about two years, according to McDowell.
The ultimate objective for all involved is to protect children. Ford says he's gratified every time an educator approaches him after a workshop saying, 'I have this case.'
"It's showing us that it's working,” he says.“ It is needed, and it keeps us hungry to grow, to educate educators to protect the kids of Maryland.”