4 – Physiology of Children in Human Trafficking

Ending Human Trafficking Podcast Logo

Learn about how the physiology of children plays a major role in human trafficking. Dr. Sandie Morgan and Dave Stachowiak discuss how the unique characteristics of children make them prime targets for traffickers. How the brain develops in children, decision making abilities, and effects of trauma all impact children and increase their vulnerability to being trafficked.

Key Points

  • Human beings are hardwired to form relationships with caregivers at a young age. When adequate caregivers are unavailable to children, they are at risk of forming attachments to human traffickers.
  • A brain develops from back to front, yet the executive decision-making ability is housed in the prefrontal lobe. Because a brain is not fully developed until around 18-25 years old, children are incapable of truly measuring the consequences or risks involved with their decisions.
  • Children who are at risk not only lack good judgment, emotional balance, impulse control, and consideration of consequences from an undeveloped brain, but also are very emotional in their response, allowing for them to be more easily pimped.
  • Typical awareness strategies do not work as effectively for adolescents, we need to create defensive strategies to create a better community response through empowering parents, community members, and children.


Love the show? Consider supporting us on Patreon!


Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 4, recorded in May 2011. Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:29] And my name is Sandra Morgan.

Dave [00:00:31] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking, which amazingly ended at the exact same time the music did. Somehow the timing all worked out, Sandie.

Sandie [00:00:44] Great. Hey, let’s talk about human trafficking.

Dave [00:00:48] Alright, sounds good. So, with that, we are going to talk some more today, Sandie2, about kids and how kids are unfortunately very involved in the human trafficking issue. And last time we talked about just scratching the surface on how kids are involved in some of the issues surrounding how we think about kids who are involved with trafficking, some of the statistics, and some of the language that we use. And I know today you’d like us to jump in a little bit more to some of the, and I’m going to try and say this word right, physiology behind how this happens.

Sandie [00:01:28] OK. Yeah. Last week we had a chance to talk about the fact that we don’t have to prove force, fraud, or coercion when it’s a minor under the age of 18. And we defined the victimization of a child being sold for commercial sex acts as commercial sexual exploitation of children. We aren’t talking about kids who voluntarily become “prostitutes”. We want to move away from that kind of terminology. But helping us understand how a child thinks and their brain development is a critical part of seeing them as victims, not as perpetrators, because they may come across as very willing participants in the illicit sale of commercial sex. And so, some people would think that they need to be prosecuted as perpetrators, and not rescued as victims. So, understanding how they think is part of the process. So, let’s talk about that. I think one of the things to begin with is to understand that human beings are hard-wired to form relationships with caregivers. So, what did we talk about the risk factors with kids last week?

Dave [00:02:52] Well, one of the things you talked about was how kids become very vulnerable when they’re homeless. And there are economic factors, much like we talked about in the second episode too, about the business aspects, unfortunately, of trafficking. So, that’s one key area that I remember.

Sandie [00:03:08] So, if they’re homeless and they’re running away possibly from some sort of abuse in the place where they were supposed to be safe, then there’s a big void in the role that is supposed to be part of their lives as a child, of having a caregiver, a parent, a father, a mother, an aunt, a grandmother, someone who is out there to take care of them. And this is something they are looking for. That’s what we do, we want to have that kind of relationship. And according to child psychologists, we are hardwired to form relationships with caregivers. Now, that seems like, well, yeah, everybody knows that. But that’s a really important part of why kids are so vulnerable to being recruited by the perpetrators, the pimps, the traffickers.

Dave [00:03:56] Because they can play that role in their brain as far as what they think they need.

Sandie [00:04:05] Exactly. So, let’s go back to the story we talked about last week.

Dave [00:04:09] OK.

Sandie [00:04:10] This is not a real name. We’re just going to call her Anna. 14-year-old American kid who ended up in a group home because of being molested in her own home by her mother’s boyfriend. So, she doesn’t like the group home. And really, a 14-year-old has a lot of issues, they’re working on their identity and finding out who they are. So, being moved into a group home is really disruptive to their lives.

Dave [00:04:39] Sure.

Sandie [00:04:39] So, she doesn’t like the group home and she wants to leave. So, she figures out how to run away. And when she runs away, she doesn’t really have a plan because her brain isn’t done. She doesn’t have the ability, the cognitive ability, to create a long-term plan and can’t figure out all the consequences. Those skills are still being developed in her developmental process. So, Anna is now on a park bench at one o’clock in the morning. And because her brain is still developing, she’s 14-years-old, she doesn’t talk to this guy when he first approaches her. Remember, he says, oh, what are you doing? Are you okay? She actually is very quiet and kind of tries to pretend like she’s invisible because she knows not to speak to strangers. Yeah. See, I’m 14, I know that. So, she doesn’t talk to him. She takes appropriate precautions. But he knew that about her. Because, see, he’s an adult, he’s 26 years old. And he comes with bait, he has a hamburger. He figures any kids sleeping on a park bench at 1 o’clock in the morning is hungry. So, he’s got that hamburger and he makes it sound like such a logical thing that I’m not really hungry. Do you want this? And now this little girl who didn’t speak to him because she is afraid of strangers reaches out to take the food and he sits down next to her and he begins to befriend her, and he asks her questions and he listens. And when you go to classes on how to develop strong relationships, listening is one of the skills that you have to develop.

Dave [00:06:25] Oh, sure.

Sandie [00:06:26] And he gives her the gift of listening. So, when he gets up and takes the trash because he’s trying to go on a fast pace to becoming her caregiver, to being seen in that role, he takes the trash, he’s getting rid of it for her, he’s walking away. He wants her to feel really safe, so then he turns back and he says, “I don’t think it’s safe for you to be out here.” See? He cares. And so, I think you should come home with me tonight and sleep on my couch and we’ll figure out what to do in the morning. Well, is he still a stranger? No, he’s not a stranger. He fed her, he listened to her, he’s a friend now. So, she gets up and she goes home with him. And that’s the beginning of the grooming process. By the end of the first week, he’s been telling her how beautiful she is, and he knows that he’s too old for her, but he can’t help himself and he’s in love. And so, she’s so happy to have somebody who’s taking care of her. Oh, he took her shopping. He bought her a cell phone; he’ll know where she is all the time. He bought her clothes, they’re very hot clothes. They will attract a lot of attention. But she’s feeling really, really cared for. So, by the end of the first week, she’s calling him her boyfriend and she’s not looking for another place to stay. She feels like she has a home. Well, by the end of the second week, he’s convinced her that she needs to work to help out. And by work, we mean she will be sold for commercial sex.

Dave [00:08:06] It’s incredible, Sandie, how it goes from a “you’re hungry, let me share a hamburger with you” to commercial sexual exploitation. How quickly that happens, but in such small steps. I think about, you know, the training we do in our business as far as teaching people how to build rapport, gaining cooperation, and ultimately being able to lead can be done in a very positive way in the business world and in building relationships with people. But wow, how quickly and how easily someone can turn that whole model around and use it to do such devious things, too. It’s just, it’s sad.

Sandie [00:08:54] And that wouldn’t work on you, would it?

Dave [00:08:56] I sure hope not.

Sandie [00:08:58] Because your brain is finished developing.

Dave [00:09:01] Right.

Sandie [00:09:01] When you target a child, you have a major advantage. When you’re a 26-year-old adult and she’s a 14-year-old child. Her brain isn’t done. In brain development, your brain develops from the back to the front. And I’m not a neurobiologist, I’m just a pediatric nurse. And so, I had to study enough of this to be able to handle the kids that were in my care. But what I learned was that the frontal lobe, the prefrontal lobe is where executive decision making is housed. And that’s one of the last parts of your brain to develop. So, this is a really important thing to understand because executive decision making is the ability to measure the consequences, to assess the risk and say, is this a good choice? Is this responsible? Will this produce a good result for me? And they don’t have that ability yet at 14. So, what happens is that they make a choice that’s based on expediency. It’s based on what they see in front of them. That’s based more on emotional responses rather than taking all the risks into account.

Dave [00:10:25] So, this is an extreme example of what every teenager does when they’re taking the car out and being careless with it and speeding and all the things that any teenager does.

Sandie [00:10:38] Yes. And in fact, it’s a good thing you brought up cars, because I think sometimes, we think, well, yeah, now we understand because we have all this technology, we can do an MRI and actually measure a brain’s development in kids and show pictures of the process. And if this was a video cast instead of an audio cast, I would show you some pictures. But the big thing is, is that it’s about the money again. We have based a lot of our decision-making processes on how we make the best profit. So, we understand that kids take risks that are expensive, that have high consequences. And so how old do you have to be to rent a car?

Dave [00:11:25] Twenty-five last time I checked, at least most of the car companies.

Sandie [00:11:26] Exactly, because the companies can’t afford that kind of risk to rent to someone whose brain isn’t done. And actually, some of the research shows that for girls, their brains aren’t done, that last prefrontal lobe, until between 18 and 21. And for guys, 24 to 26. So, that means that with their adolescent brain, they’re going to have a lack of integration that results in poor judgment, not a good handle on emotional balance or impulse control, and here’s the biggie- their planning and consideration of future consequences, very immediate, not long term. So, take Anna again, she wanted out of the group home. And then one o’clock in the morning, she’s on a park bench. Did she really want to spend the night on a park bench? No, but she just didn’t have the process figured out yet to be able to do that.

Dave [00:12:38] The people who perpetrate these crimes, they understand this.

Sandie [00:12:42] Absolutely.

Dave [00:12:42] And they prey on it.

Sandie [00:12:44] Exactly. Because it’s based on power and control. And the one with power takes advantage of the weaker, those without the power. I think one of the things to understand what you see in kids who are at risk is that they are very emotional in their response and they consequently have a heightened sensitivity to reward. So, a lot of the recruiting strategies that pimps use play on that. So, not all of the pimp recruiting happens on park benches at 1 o’clock in the morning, but can happen with other girls who are part of a group that go and show off their shoes or their Gucci bags or coach bags or whatever it is that’s popular right now and say, well, you know, if you come and work with us, then you’ll be able to get this, too. And the idea that there would be this immediate reward, but without any consideration for the risks of what’s going to happen because of sexually transmitted diseases or the drugs that they give you. What kind of health consequences are going to be involved with that?

Dave [00:14:08] It’s really just amazing to me, Sandie, how many things there are to consider. For those of us who are trying to raise awareness about this issue and ending human trafficking and how much there is to learn. And around that, if someone out there who’s listening to this episode, were going to remember two or three key things around it. What, if anything, can be done to prevent kids from falling into this situation? What would be the things that people should remember? People should be looking out for.

Sandie [00:14:51] That is a great question. When I was working overseas in southern Europe, we had a lot of victims who were trafficked from the former Soviet Union into Greece, into sex trafficking. And after a while, there was this sense that, well, if we could let these young girls know that there is no job to come to live in Greece, that they are being trafficked to be sold for sex. If we could let them know before they accepted the jobs, they wouldn’t come. So, IOM and some other NGOs, they put out leaflets that they took to schools, high schools, they put up billboards. You would pass a billboard on your way to the airport to fly to that job. You were coming to Greece and the girls were still trafficked. And when they were rescued, and they were in a shelter, we would ask them, “didn’t you see the sign? Didn’t you see the paper we gave to every high school girl?” They said, “Oh, yeah, I saw that.” But just like our research shows and there’s this principle called personal fable and invulnerability for the adolescent thinking process that says I’m different and nothing bad will happen to me. It won’t happen to me; I can handle myself. And so that sense of extreme risk-taking makes them very vulnerable. So, prevention strategies that are just giving them awareness and call this number are not very helpful. And so, it actually becomes the responsibility of the community to put together a better community response so that we watch out for our kids so that we do things that decrease the opportunity for them to get into situations that are risky. And I don’t mean that you have to lock your kids or tell people to keep your kids in the house. But there’s an after-school program in a high-risk community where there’s a lot of poverty. And in that program, all they do is because they found out that pimps were recruiting girls after high school let out every day. So, they just send out their teams in teams of two. And all they do is walk up and down the sidewalks, six blocks around the high school for an hour after school gets out just to reduce the opportunity for the predators to approach the girls. So, they were defending. They weren’t doing prevention; they were defending the kids. I think we have to start looking for more of those kinds of defensive strategies.

Dave [00:17:34] As you’ve traveled the world and talked to people who’ve been involved with the human trafficking issue, what have you seen that’s really been effective, Sandie, on raising awareness and in preventing kids from falling into these situations. You mentioned the patrol around the school. For people who want to go out and really do something and feel led to take some action. What would be things in addition to that that you would advise, or you’ve seen worked or that people should consider?

Sandie [00:18:12] Well, I think one of the areas where we can do better defensive work is to educate the parents and the community because sometimes the parents are not included in the child’s life. And so, we have to accept that. And so, we have to, as a community, step up to defend them. But I think another strategy we have to start looking at is how do we empower kids and empower their families? Many times, the situations, for instance, with trafficked kids in Africa, someone comes to the village and says, “we have a school program, and if your kids come with us, they’ll work a few hours on the farm and then they’ll go to school.” And the parents want to believe that. I talked to an NGO worker in Africa and he said when he was driving through just flat land where there is nothing, he saw a billboard that was increasing awareness about don’t let your kids go off with a stranger to a school. And this guy said to me said, “so who are they targeting out here?” Well, they’re targeting the villages and the people that are very vulnerable because they don’t know that they need to defend their kids. So, educating the parents, so that they’re better at defending their kids is really helpful, but also creating opportunities so that their kids don’t need to go someplace else to get an education. Empowering kids.

Dave [00:19:47] And again, we come back to the economic aspects of this. The money of creating opportunities for not just adults, but also for children when they are at risk and when there is, you know, that vulnerability. And you talked about a couple of weeks ago in the last episode, Sandie, about the vulnerability of children here just in California. Did you say 200,000?

Sandie [00:20:14] Two hundred thousand homeless, 12 to 17-year-old. And that’s a great example of how we can start to develop some new strategies that defend kids. There are very, very few programs for homeless youth. One of the problems, if you go to a homeless shelter and that shelter is not certified to take unaccompanied minors and you’re not an emancipated minor, they’re going to risk their license to house you. So, how do we create ways for are our homeless services to help these kids, to defend these kids so that they’re not out on a park bench? Some of the other great empowerment strategies that we’ve seen growing in momentum and they’re very small. They’re like a drop in the bucket right now, but they are growing are more community approaches to providing foster care and finding ways to be more involved as a community in social service activities for kids who are at risk.

Dave [00:21:22] Are there organizations yet that are doing that well or starting to do work around that, Sandie, that you would recommend people look into or search for on the Web if they were looking for ways that they might be able to play a part in that?

Sandie [00:21:35] Well nationally, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children does some really great work helping educate parents on risks and how to identify predators. Another great organization for reducing vulnerability to internet predators is called netsmartz.org. And those resources are available with links to that on the Global Center for Women and Justice website.

Dave [00:22:03] Net smarts?

Sandie [00:22:04] NetSmartz, and it ends with a Z. It’s kind of cool teaching our kids how the Internet is a way that a predator can find you and defending our kids in their own rooms. It’s kind of an interesting little survey that I do when I speak at middle schools particularly. I ask, “so how many of you kids have a computer in your bedroom or laptop that you can take in your bedroom?” And usually between 60 and 75 percent of kids have access to a computer in their own bedroom. And I’m like, no, no, no. Because parents don’t understand that they have to defend their kids from Internet predators. The case I mentioned here in Orange County, where the Predator was sent away for 17 and a half years, he recruited on the Internet and then sent bus tickets to his victims to come here where he was going to make them famous models. He promised them something and lured them here with that promise. And they believed it.

Dave [00:23:07] We had a situation happen in our community in Ladera Ranch, where my wife and I live, just a couple of months ago. Someone just a few blocks from here that was luring a child to a park and was thankfully they had someone from law enforcement had gotten wind of what was happening and had set up a stakeout. But, you know, they were ready to take a child. And it’s just it hits close to home when you see it, I mean, boy, if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.

Sandie [00:23:41] And anytime we see really young girls dressed very provocatively and a parade of men entering and exiting that establishment, that’s when you want to call the 888-373-7888 number, so they can call the appropriate victim services and law enforcement. And if something’s happening right in front of you, call 9-1-1. Call 9-1-1, because we have to rescue our kids. We have to get them out of that.

Dave [00:24:10] One of the other resources that Sandie mentioned a moment ago was the Global Center for Women and Justice website, which has a number of resources and information on there in addition to some of the links that she just talked about. And that website is at GCWJ.vanguard.edu. So, that’s how you can get there directly. And of course, some a reminder that as we’re talking here, if you’re thinking about questions or comments about what we’re discussing, or things that you’d like to see us talk about on a future episode, be sure to e-mail that to gcwj@vanguard.edu.

Sandie [00:25:06] We got a few more minutes and I wanted to move just a little bit past the brain activity of that aspect of brain development. And talk about what happens with trauma to the brain. Because when these kids are victimized over and over again and literally raped, at some point that trauma is part of the way they respond to things. They have to figure out how to deal with that and to survive their brain will alter and that will change their own sense of self and how they function because their reality is altered. And the predators, the pimps, the traffickers use particular strategies to alter their reality. They isolate, they physically abuse them, they threaten them with harm to themselves or their loved ones, they will be emotionally abusive through humiliation, they may use drugs, they may deprive them of food and sleep. And when they ask them to betray their own value system, at some point there is a sense of, well, now I can never go back. I can never go back. And then occasionally the perpetrator will use kindness or give them a gift, and suddenly everything’s going to be right with my world. And yet it’s part of a cycle. And that cycle alters this child’s reality so that even when the victim realizes that they can’t get out, they’re dependent on the perpetrator. And when someone tries to help them, if you as a member of a community, begin to suspect that this child is being controlled by an adult who is exploiting them. They may equate the perpetrator with survival and will do whatever they can to protect the perpetrator and not respond to those of us who are reaching out to help them.

Dave [00:27:23] The physiology of it and how our brains adapt to situations or try to adapt to situations, I guess would be the better way to say it, Sandie, is really complex and I’m glad there are so many resources to look to that can help us to understand this and provide resources that will be helpful in situations like this should we come across this.

Sandie [00:27:48] And it takes a community response. And when I say community, I’m not talking just about the NGOs. I’m not talking just about victim services in schools. But our law enforcement and our law enforcement here in the state of California is really ratcheting up their training so that the everyday law enforcement officer on the street will be able to identify the bad guys and the victims and are being trained. And there’s training available through our human trafficking program here in California for every law enforcement agency to know what to do when they see kids and who to call and how to provide the best resources for them.

Dave [00:28:32] Sandie, if someone in law enforcement is listening to this and they’re not aware of those resources, who would be the resource organization that they’d reach out to find out about that training?

Sandie [00:28:41] In California, they could go online, actually, and fill out a request form at OCHumanTrafficking.org OC for Orange County and request training for their local law enforcement agency.

Dave [00:29:00] That’s just about going to wrap up the amount of time that we have here today. Sandie, I know we’ll be back in two weeks to talk more about the human trafficking issue and what are ways that we can continue to raise our awareness around this issue. And before going, if there was one thing that people should remember or you want people to be thinking about kids involved in human trafficking, what would be the one thing you’d want them to remember?

Sandie [00:29:29] I want them every time they see a headline that says teen prostitute or child prostitute. I want them to say, oh, no, that’s commercial sexual exploitation of children and we need to do something about it.

Dave [00:29:44] And it really does take us all changing our perspective and the language we use to understand that kids, regardless of the age that they’re at, really are victims of this. And the more we can do to recognize that, the more we really can do to end human trafficking.

Sandie [00:29:58] Right here in the United States.

Dave [00:30:00] We’ll see you back in two weeks if you have any comments or questions for us, e-mail it to us at our e-mail address. That’s gcwj@vanguard.edu or you where you can find us on Facebook, just search for the Global Center for Women and Justice. We’ll see you in two weeks. Thanks, Sandie.

Sandie [00:30:15] Bye bye.


Scroll to Top