Home News and Features Hidden Threat: Human Trafficking in Vermont

Hidden Threat: Human Trafficking in Vermont

Kate Sinz is Prevent Child Abuse Vermont’s CARE Program trainer. Photo courtesy of Prevent Child Abuse Vermont.
It can seem like a remote problem, something we see on a news clip about a country far away. Human trafficking exists, however, in countries all over the world and in all 50 states. According to the Federal Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, sex trafficking is defined as commercial sex “induced by force, fraud or coercion or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.”

Labor trafficking, which tends to affect males, is modern day slavery in industries such as agriculture or domestic work. 

Sex trafficking affects more females than males. It’s easy to assume that girls, especially underage girls, drawn into this web are likely to be runaways from larger cities who may have fallen into a relationship with criminal elements. It’s also easy to assume that it never happens in Vermont. 

The state’s Department for Children and Families (DCF), however, reports that while we don’t have the high numbers seen in some other states, it does happen to young people in Vermont. In 2021, there were 42 reports of sex trafficking of minors. 

In addition, it’s a myth that trafficked teens are mostly runaways. According to DCF, “Most of the youths identified in the Vermont reports were being trafficked while living at home with a family member.” 

Problems at home, however, can also make a young person more vulnerable to predators. Families dealing with addiction to drugs or alcohol may neglect the physical and emotional needs of their children. Those children will then be susceptible to individuals they know or meet online who promise to buy gifts for them or take care of them.

Marcie Hambrick, Director of the Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Department at Prevent Child Abuse Vermont (PCAVT), notes that LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual) youths may also be especially vulnerable to predators because of the potential family conflict the LGBTQIA+ teen might experience at home. A parent’s lack of acceptance can lead to a lack of support and connection. Hambrick reports that, in some cases, the teenager or young adult may even be told to leave the home.

Although some groups seem to be at a higher risk, staff members at PCAVT stress that it’s impossible to predict exactly who will be caught in a life of trafficking. Once trapped, the victim will find it hard to free herself. Her online “friend” becomes an abuser and can begin to exert brutal control, becoming violent if she refuses to offer sex to the trafficker or to his customers. If the victim has an addiction or develops one, the abuser will enforce his will by offering drugs if she complies or withholding them if she doesn’t. According to Vermont’s former U.S. District Attorney for the District of Vermont, “Human trafficking continues to be one of the most dangerous but least understood aspects of the opioid trade in Vermont.”

It’s difficult to know the full extent of child trafficking because it’s often underreported. Victims often don’t feel victimized, Hambrick says. Instead they blame themselves. They believed the friend they met online. They may still believe he loves them. They chose to take drugs. Guilt and shame can silence the abused. 

What’s being done to address this almost invisible threat to our children?

The state of Vermont has developed a “Multidisciplinary Disciplinary Human Trafficking Task Force” to combat the problem. This collaborative group includes the United States Attorney’s Office, the Vermont Attorney General’s office, the Vermont State Police, Homeland Security, the Vermont Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, the Coalition of Runaway and Homeless Youth Program, and other agencies and nonprofit organizations.

In addition, Prevent Child Abuse Vermont is piloting an education program for students grades 7 to 12 called “Child Anti-trafficking Resources and Education” (CARE). It is designed to help students recognize risk factors and learn about the ways they can protect themselves. The program also trains families to watch for risks and to monitor devices. This year CARE has been piloted at Hartford High School and at Enosburg Falls Junior/Senior High Schools by PCAVT trainer, Kate Sinz. It’s now being made available to schools all over Vermont and may be taught by guidance counselors, social workers, and other school staff members.

What about those children whose families are so overwhelmed by their own issues they can’t see what threatens their children? They are not likely to attend the information sessions offered to caregivers.

Hambrick emphasizes that, to help the neediest young people, we need to look at social ills such as crime, poverty, and addiction, which weaken families and traumatize children. 

“Trauma leads to greater physical and mental health needs and to vulnerability. This can result in (children) being trafficked, becoming addicted, and to a life greatly damaged,” she says. 

Contact Information

Vermont Parent Helpline: 1-800-244-5373.

For information about Prevent Child Abuse Vermont’s CARE program, contact: ksinz@pcavt.org

Vermont Department for Children and Families: 1-800-649-5285 (to report child sex trafficking in Vermont).

National Human Trafficking Hotline: 888-373-7888 / text line 233-3733 (to report labor trafficking in Vermont and elsewhere and to report child sex trafficking outside of Vermont).