The image some may have of children being coerced into human trafficking is of a female being abducted by a stranger off a city street.
Rebecca Jowers knows that is not the case.
“That is not the normal way kids are being trafficked,” Jowers, the creator and executive director of the Poiema Foundation, a Rockwall-based nonprofit organization and ministry dedicated to the awareness of and fight against sex trafficking and the assistance to the victims.
Jowers speaks to community groups about the problem and addressed the Greenville Rotary Club earlier this month. Much of the information she passed along was frightening.
For example, Jowers noted how sex trafficking is a rapidly growing issue, and is spreading far beyond the limits of major cities.
“We’ve had kids in the suburbs being trafficked,” Jowers said, adding it is expected to continue to rise given the prevalence of the Internet and cell phones, which makes it not only easier for children to see pornography, but for them to be reached by the perpetrators.
Jowers explained the average age of children who are trafficked is about 12 to 13 years old.
“Again that is an average,” she said, noting that means some victims are much younger.
The victims of human trafficking come from all forms of socio-economic, racial and ethic backgrounds and there are no stereotypical victims, although many do share one or more red flags, including burns or scars, signs of alcohol and/or drug addiction, frequent travel to other cities and being accompanied by older and controlling boyfriends or women.
Some victims are runaways, seeking to leave behind dysfunctional family dynamics. They may have previously been the victim of abuse or trauma or mental illness and also have dealt with parents who have drug or alcohol addictions.
Jowers said a runaway often will search out a location which is open 24 hours to rest, such as a convenience store, restaurant or bus stop. It is there the perpetrators of sex trafficking know where to look and know how to approach and recruit their victims.
But Jowers said it can happen anywhere and be initiated by anyone, including friends and family.
She related the all too common stories of how a mother or father will convince their child to become a victim, in order to obtain money to pay for housing, food, drugs or just to supplement their lifestyle.
“There’s a lot of easy money to be made by the perpetrators,” Jowers said. “It is not easy for the victims.”
She said the victims are forced to remain so through a variety of methods, from intimidation to addictions to substance abuse to blackmail and violence
“They have seen horrifying things and they have been threatened in horrific ways,” Jowers said.
But the Poiema Foundation also seeks to forgive the perpetrators of the horror. Jowers said the organization is founded on a verse in Ephesians 2:10: “For we are God’s handiwork, (poiema) created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
“That’s a broken person who Christ also died for,” Jowers said.
The organization’s outreach has been paying off, as Jowers said law enforcement agencies receive tips from the public about suspicious activity they observe which has resulted in arrests and convictions of those responsible, and the assistance provided to the victims.
Jowers said that those who are helped, and they include both girls and boys, require long-term solutions for recovery in a residential environment. Options for those are few and far between, although the organization is hopeful one location may soon be available in Greenville.
The root causes for sex trafficking are a different story.
“Quite frankly, the only thing we can do is change the hearts of men,” Jowers said.
The Greenville Rotary Club has announced it will be establishing a satellite club, which will meet monthly to deal with human trafficking on a local basis.