Not in my backyard…or is it?

Saving Alaska’s children from sex trafficking

By Amy Newman

Spend any amount of time online and you’ll read stories of child sex trafficking. Facebook posts about an attempted abduction as a child walked home from school. News stories about children rescued from sex trafficking rings and being transported across state lines.

It’s easy to tune these stories out, thinking “This doesn’t happen in my town” or “This will never happen to my child.”

Statistics, however, tell a different story. A 2016 study commissioned by Covenant House interviewed homeless youth at 10 Covenant House locations across the country, including Anchorage. The findings were startling: 1 in 4 Alaskan youth reported being involved in some type of trafficking, higher than the national average of 1 in 5.

And it’s not just adults doing the recruitment and trafficking. Gwen Adams, executive director of Priceless Alaska, says her organization has seen instances of student-led sex trafficking rings at each of Anchorage’s six high schools.

“Most people don’t know it’s rampant here,” says Sherrie Laurie, executive director of the Downtown Hope Center. “It’s so much worse and so much more widespread than I think people have any idea.”

Children at risk

Alaska law defines child sex trafficking as inducing a minor to engage in a commercial sex act through force or threat of force. Although trafficking cuts across all socio-economic and ethnic groups, the common thread among victims is vulnerability, explains Special Agent Jolene Goeden with the FBI’s Anchorage field office.

“Traffickers are often looking for kids who have some type of vulnerability, and that’s most of our teenagers,” she says. “Young girls who have self-esteem issues, if there’s family issues, problems at home, or drug and alcohol problems. Just some type of vulnerability where the trafficker can insert himself to fill that void, or to be that person to build up the child’s self-esteem.”

Instability at home makes children more likely to latch on to someone showering them with attention.

“If the child comes from a home that’s not a healthy family with a good support system, the first person who comes around that’s cool, they get sucked into something,” Sherrie explains.

Experts caution that children can be involved in trafficking even if they’re living at home.

“There’s a misconception about trafficking,” Jolene says. “It’s not like the movie Taken; kids are not being kidnapped, they’re not being snatched. I’m sure that happens occasionally, but that’s not what we’re seeing in Alaska.”

Gwen agrees, saying it’s fear – of the trafficker, of friends and family finding out, or both – that keeps the child trapped.

“They’re not chained, they’re not necessarily in cages,” she says. “They’re out walking around. It’s fear and intimidation that keeps them from saying anything.”

Sex trafficking recruitment

Like child sexual abuse, sex trafficking begins with a grooming period, which can take days, weeks, or even months.

“Generally, it starts with a friendship, or a perceived friendship, that meets a need to be seen, to be beautiful, to be someone,” Sherrie explains.

When it comes to girls, Gwen says it commonly happens in one of two ways. In some cases, the trafficker positions himself as a potential boyfriend and showers the girl with extravagant gifts. In others, they pose as a modeling agency or photographer looking to recruit the girl for her looks.

The segue from relationship to trafficking can be subtle. The trafficker slowly creates a wedge between the child and their family, Jolene says, casting themselves as the only person who understands them. After providing them with gifts or money or, for children with nowhere to go, a place to stay, the trafficker may suddenly request repayment in the form of commercial sex.

Other times, the trafficker asks the girl to sleep with several of his friends as a one-time favor because he needs the money, Gwen adds.

“Once they cross that threshold, it’s pretty much repetitive selling,” Gwen says. “They are trapped in a trafficking situation, not physically but mentally.”

Red flags

Identifying when a child is a victim of trafficking can be difficult, Sherrie says, because many of the signs, like private texting, spending extended periods of time on the phone or online, or withdrawing from family, are also typical of teenage behavior.
One thing parents should be wary of is a new relationship that begins to interfere with established, trusted relationships in the child’s life.

“If a new person enters the picture that you feel is driving a wedge, that’s a huge red flag,” Gwen says. “All those wedges are being driven to build trust between her and the trafficker.”

Sudden changes in behavior, such as plummeting grades, lack of attention, or putting a new relationship above friends and other activities can also indicate a problem, Gwen adds.

Parents should also look for signs of self-harm, such as cutting or slashing, which some girls engage in as a way to deal with the shame they feel having participated in selling sex for money, Sherrie adds.

The appearance of a second cell phone is another big red flag.

“That second cell phone is used as a way to slowly remove the child from their healthy support system,” Jolene says. “It’s their private way of connecting.”

Protecting children

Being an involved parent and working to build your child’s self-esteem are important to help protect children from sex trafficking.

“Know their friends. Make sure they know you’re proud of them, that you believe in them,” Gwen says. “During those rotten (teenage) years, make sure that not every encounter with them is negative. Shower your kids with words they might hear from the trafficker first.”

Because online trafficking and recruitment has increased, parents should limit access to digital devices and talk to their children about what’s appropriate to share online.

“The internet has just made it so easy to really just take advantage and hurt people like that,” Sherrie says. Prohibiting phones in the bedroom at night and allowing kids to use them only in a public part of the house lets parents more easily monitor what they’re doing. Parents should also share stories about sex trafficking they hear about in the news, she adds.

Keeping the lines of communication open and letting kids know they can share anything that’s happening to them is also important – even if they choose to share it with another adult.

“Traffickers slowly try to pull the child away from trusted people, and parents are going to be first,” Jolene says. “Make sure there’s another adult in the child’s life – whether an older sister, aunt, uncle, or someone who’s a little cooler than you – to have
those conversations.”


If you’re a victim of sex trafficking, or if you have concerns that a child you know is involved, these organizations can help. In an emergency, call 911, or file a report with the local Police Department or the FBI local field office.

Covenant House Alaska. Provides safe shelter, hot meals, medical counseling, and employment services to youths ages 13-21 experiencing homelessness, abuse and trafficking.
755 A St., Anchorage, AK 99501

Priceless Alaska. Works closely with the FBI, Anchorage Police Department and other law enforcement personnel and helps victims navigate available resources.

National Human Trafficking Hotline. Provides information on trafficking and ways to help, including a 24/7 crisis hotline. All calls are confidential and answered live by trained anti-trafficking advocates.
National Hotline: 888-373-7888
Text: 233733 (BeFree)

STAR (Standing Together Against Rape). Trained advocates answer STAR’s 24/7 crisis line, provide crisis intervention, and offer case management to sexual assault survivors.
1057 W. Fireweed Lane #230, Anchorage, AK 99503
Statewide Crisis Line: 800-478-8999