Can you imagine your daughter – or even your son – being targeted by a sex trafficker? Is it even possible that your child could be at risk?

There’s a common misperception among parents that sex trafficking victims are typically runaways picked up off the street, or kids who have the rare misfortune to be abducted by strangers. While both scenarios are pathways to victimization and runaways truly are in great danger, the majority of sex trafficking victims are targeted and then ensnared by an acquaintance – someone who’s gained their trust. And that puts any child, anywhere, at risk.

Although girls are most frequently targeted by sex traffickers, boys can be targeted too. Traffickers prey on their victim’s youthful naivety and are quick to notice kids who are loosely supervised either online or in their day-to-day life. Traffickers are also on the lookout for youth who feel misunderstood or alienated from their peers or parents as they are easy to befriend, isolate and later manipulate.

Canadian mom Lynda Harlos wants parents to understand just how readily a young woman can be lured into sex trafficking.

In her book Walk a Mile: A Mother’s Journey into Her Daughter’s Secret Life1 Lynda recounts how her daughter, whom she calls Kate in her book, was approached by her soon-to-be trafficker at a vulnerable time in her life. To Kate, this man was a boyfriend she was emotionally invested in – a boyfriend she believed truly loved her.

Kate’s story

Sharing some of her daughter’s story with Focus on the Family Canada, Lynda explained that when Kate was 17, she went to a party where she was drugged and raped by multiple young men. When Kate became pregnant, her friends and peers didn’t believe her claim that her pregnancy was the result of an assault, rather than consensual sex. Lynda recalls that the police didn’t believe Kate’s story either. And every time her experience was questioned, Kate felt re-victimized.

One day when Kate was waiting outside her school and standing off to the side of a group who were ignoring her, a young man noticed Kate and came over and introduced himself. Soon the young man reached out to Kate on social media, learned her story, and said he believed her, that he was sorry the rest of the world didn’t believe her. “He started telling Kate everything she needed to hear,” Lynda recalls.

Eventually the young man started dating Kate. But Lynda felt something was off. “My husband and I could see that she was slowly pulling away from the family.”

Lynda and her husband did everything they could to warn Kate as her boyfriend gained a stronger and stronger psychological hold over her. After the baby was born, Kate and her child lived in Lynda’s basement, but Kate and her boyfriend eventually moved out on their own. While they were renting their own place, Kate’s boyfriend began trafficking her, claiming he needed her help to pay the bills.

After three-and-a-half months of being trafficked, Kate knew she had to reach out for help: her boyfriend had begun threatening to harm to her baby as a means of manipulating her. Kate finally called home and said, “Mom, come pick me up.”

Kate spent nearly ten years believing she had somehow said yes to the sex work. While volunteering with Victim Services Canada, however, Kate finally realized that she had been trafficked – that she had been coerced into something she never chose for herself. It was at this time, nearly ten years after she became a victim, that Kate finally told her parents about the trafficking. The news propelled Lynda into her work in sex trafficking prevention.

“If I was educated on trafficking, if I knew how vulnerable she was, this may not have happened to Kate,” Lynda says. “I’m not going to let anybody else put their head on the pillow at night with naivety being the reason why something happened to their child.”

What to watch for 

Kate was approached by her boyfriend directly, but it’s also common for victims to be approached by another girl, a new “best friend,” who is secretly recruiting victims for her handler – a trafficker who goes on to woo the victim into a dating relationship.

It’s that emotional entanglement that blinds the victim to the trafficker’s true motives and intentions. Once the victim’s love and trust start to falter, the trafficker uses shame, violence, drug dependence and/or blackmail to control their victim.

There are other common forms of ensnarement, too, that can be much more direct: the child meets someone online who wins their friendship, then the child exchanges sexual images or agrees to a first, second or third meeting that ends in assault or rape. Shame and blackmail then become effective tools for the trafficker.

While any child can be targeted, sex traffickers will take advantage of certain habits and life experiences that leave a child especially vulnerable to exploitation. These include:

  • Loose supervision by parents (parents work long hours, or fail to check up on sleepovers, visits to friends, etc.)
  • Feeling alienated from their parents; can’t confide in parents due to fear or shame
  • Feeling alienated from their peers or friends
  • Has endured an earlier traumatic experience such as sexual abuse, rape or an unplanned pregnancy
  • Neglecting to protect their privacy online by, for example, sharing their home address, identifying their school, allowing location sharing on apps, accepting friend requests from strangers
  • Experiencing loneliness and/or financial stress (a common experience for young single moms)
  • Sharing nude images or appearing in a video taken with or without their knowledge, making them vulnerable to blackmail
  • Keeping secret about threats of violence toward themselves or toward parents or siblings 
  • Has a drug addiction
  • Has no strong family support or lives in the foster care system
  • Identifies as LGBTQ+

While this may be unthinkable for parents, it’s not unusual for a child to be trafficked while they are still living in the family home and appear to be living a normal life. Parents should stay alert for changes in a child’s behaviour – especially signs like these that suggest the child is being groomed, or is already working in the sex trade: 

  • Sudden change in friend group, a new boyfriend or a much older boyfriend
  • Seems overly influenced by their boyfriend or new friends
  • Growing isolation from parents and/or their previous friend group
  • Becoming secretive or evasive
  • Increase in sleepovers or evenings at friends’ homes or attending parties
  • Sudden change in academic performance
  • Unexplained income
  • New possessions such as a new cellphone, new clothes, shoes, jewelry, purses
  • Sudden change to a more provocative style of clothes, new hairstyle
  • New tattoo (traffickers will often brand victims with a symbol or the trafficker’s name)
  • Appears tired, stressed or more withdrawn than usual
  • Unexplained bruises, cuts or burn marks
  • Possesses a second cellphone 
  • Possesses keys you don’t recognize or hotel key cards
  • Starts using drugs

Prevention through safe connection

Jan Edwards, president and founder of the U.S.-based child trafficking prevention organization Paving the Way, wants parents to understand that even the most attentive parent may not notice any red flags.

“In puberty, your body is changing, your brain is changing, your hormones are changing,” she explains. “If you add in a couple extra erratic behaviours, a parent might not notice. But predators know that parents are expecting this up and down erratic behaviour, which is when they know to move in.”

Intentionally getting to know your child is an important piece of prevention, says Edwards. “When you’re with your kids, you start to see the subtle nuances of their growth and their development and the things they are dealing with. You can then address it head on.”

In her advocacy and education, Lynda Harlos teaches that the most important thing parents can do is to nurture a safe space at home. “My number one thing for parents is that they just need to constantly be available. They need to be their child’s safe space. Their child needs to be able to come to them and tell them anything about any topic without criticism or judgement. Because if parents don’t allow that safe space to be with them, a trafficker will, and that’s how they will keep them with them.”

Paving the Way recommends simple ways to engage your child daily:

  • Ask the question “What are they grateful for today?” and share what you are grateful for too
  • Talk daily about life, fears, joys, etc.
  • Share a challenge you are dealing with
  • Say “I love you” and “I’m proud of you”
  • Share a failure in your life and what you did about it
  • Share a success
  • Ask about their dreams for their future

Additionally, Edwards has learned not to jump in and try to fix her child’s problems – which can sometimes make children less likely to open up to their parents. “I had to learn to ask my own daughter, ‘Are you venting? Do you need me to agree with something? Or are we solving a problem?’ It altered how I listen to her,” she explains. “Sometimes we will come back to something and she will say, ‘Mom I could really use your help on this,’ and we work that out together.”

These olive branches of intentional engagement can set up a child for an emotionally healthy childhood. “It’s the opportunity for them to have another safe adult,” Edwards says. “We are the safe space, and that’s what they want from us. As parents, we have to figure out how to create that for them and with them. A child’s nightmare is their parent being disappointed in them.”

If trafficking has already occurred, then what?

As with any victimization, Lynda Harlos says the most important thing a child who has been trafficked needs to know is that it’s not their fault, even if that realization doesn’t occur right away.2 “This takes years for victims, and sometimes they don’t ever recognize that it wasn’t their fault,” she notes. “The parent needs to let them know that they’re there for them, and that it’s going to be a process, and they’re going to walk through this together.”

As her daughter Kate worked through her experience as a trafficking survivor, Lynda had her own significant moment of healing when Kate said, “You know Mama, it’s okay for you to cry, it’s okay for you to hurt and it’s okay for you to be upset. It’s okay mom, just grab my hand. We will do this together.” At that moment Lynda realized that, as a parent, she was a secondary victim of trafficking. Like a victim realizing they have been violated, Lynda was able to understand why she herself was in such a deep fog for so long. 

“My heart just broke because my daughter went through all of that, and now she is giving me permission to cry,” Lynda recalls. “She is giving me permission to hurt. Parents of trafficking victims and survivors, we need to be believed, and we need not to be blamed.”

Editor’s note: If you are concerned that your child could be the victim of sex trafficking or is being groomed for sex trafficking you must intervene, but you should do so carefully to ensure you don’t put your child’s safety at risk. The Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline can be reached at 1.833.900.1010 and they can advise you on how best to proceed. Any disclosure of sexual abuse made by a minor must also be reported to the police or a child welfare agency right away.

If you would like to talk to one of our professional counsellors about this or any other difficult topic, don’t hesitate to contact us for a free, one-time complimentary consultation. For on-going help, Focus on the Family Canada can also recommend a professional Christian counsellor in your area. Contact us Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Pacific time at 1.800.661.9800.


1. Lynda Harlos’ book Walk a Mile: A Mother’s Journey into Her Daughter’s Secret Life has not been reviewed for endorsement by Focus on the Family Canada. The occasional use of strong language in Lynda’s book will concern some readers. You can also watch Lynda’s story on YouTube.

2. Sex traffickers often lead victims to believe that they consented to sex work and could face legal consequences. But by law in Canada, children under 18 years of age cannot give consent to sex work when being exploited by another person. Adults, too, cannot be understood to have given consent to sex work when they have been exploited.

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