By Carrie Swartz
Minors are a target audience in the scope of Fierce Freedom’s human sex trafficking education and prevention outreach, and for good reason. The average age of entry into trafficking is 11-14 years old for both boys and girls (www.preventionproject.org), and between 100,000 and 300,000 minors fall victim to sex trafficking each year in the U.S. (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children), which is likely an underestimation due to the hidden nature of the crime. In response to the ongoing need for youth-specific human trafficking educational resources, Fierce Freedom has adopted iEmpathize’s Empower Youth Program for Teens as a recommended resource for members of our community working with and educating youth.
The Empower Youth Program for Teens came to Fierce Freedom’s attention via Jodi Emerson, Fierce Freedom’s Director of Public Policy and Community Relations. Jodi serves as a member of the Wisconsin Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force, which was formed in December 2015 with the purpose of developing a coordinated, comprehensive plan to address human trafficking of youth in the state. The task force has since identified the Empower Youth Program as a recommended curriculum, prompting Fierce Freedom to preview the program for possible use.
The iEmpathize website explains, “Educators, parents, and youth service providers can utilize this five-part series of short films, activities, and discussion questions to empower teens 7th grade and up to successfully navigate the vulnerabilities in their lives in order to stay safe from exploitation.” The films are narrated by and include interviews with teens who have overcome difficult life circumstances using strategies from the program, making each of the five one-hour sessions relatable and engaging. The program is unique- while it does address specific dangers of sex trafficking, it also takes a broad approach in teaching youth how to protect themselves from exploitation in general. Participants learn how to recognize various tactics that an unsafe person might use to lure them into a bad situation, and tips to identify a trustworthy adult whom they might reach out to for help.
The program also directs youth to identify their personal, unique “vulnerabilities,” and how an unsafe person might target those vulnerabilities to exploit them. According to Shared Hope International, “Age is the primary factor of vulnerability. [Youth] are more susceptible to the calculated advances, deception, and tactics used by traffickers/ pimps- no youth is exempt from falling prey to these tactics.” Other vulnerabilities could include personal factors (such as poverty or an unstable family environment), environmental factors (such as violent communities or neglectful homes), or personality factors (such as low self-esteem or difficulty making friends) (www.iEmpathize.org).
Looking deeper into the profiles of children who are sex trafficked, for example, there are factors (vulnerabilities) that help us understand which youth are at highest risk. Those factors include, but are not limited to: children who frequently run away, children who have experienced childhood sexual abuse (especially if the abuse was unreported, untreated, or resulted in the child being removed from the home), children with significant substance abuse issues (or who live with someone who has significant substance abuse issues), and children who identify as LGBTQ and have been kicked out or stigmatized by their family (The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children).
The Empower Youth Program teaches a core concept of empathy, encouraging youth to actively respond to the suffering of others (rather than responding with apathy or having an inactive response). Ironically, the same life experiences that can make a young person vulnerable to being trafficked can also make them vulnerable to becoming a bully or a trafficker themselves. iEmpathize states, “boys and men are often groomed to become victimizers… youth need positive alternatives to the deceptive and coercive options that exploitative people may otherwise offer them.” Through the program, participants are encouraged to put themselves in another person’s shoes, and to reach out in a positive way to offer positive support to others.
iEmpathize does charge an annual fee for using the curriculum, based on the number of students being taught (scholarships are available). Fierce Freedom will be purchasing the curriculum on a small scale (at least to start), with plans to teach the 5-part series for the first time at the Northwest Regional Juvenile Detention Center in early 2018. While we are excited to teach the curriculum ourselves, our greater objective is to get the curriculum into the hands of educators and other community organizations who work with youth so they can teach it to the youth that they work with. In doing so, the number of students reached will be multiplied.
To learn more about the Youth Empowerment Program for Teens for possible use in your sphere of influence, visit www.iempathize.org or contact Carrie Swartz at Fierce Freedom.