By Ally Wall
“Don’t talk to strangers.”
It’s the lesson so many children are taught when they are little. The lesson I was taught. I never thought for a moment that I would have fallen for a stranger’s tricks. But I did.
When I was a child, I would go with my grandparents to different campgrounds. I loved traveling with them. I loved going out in nature and exploring freely. I loved being a kid.
One year my grandparents decided to take me to the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida. It was a beautiful place, and the perfect spot for young kids. Rope swings suspended over the river from the tallest of trees. A giant hill that a group of us turned into a water slide and played on for hours.
A bike trail with a steep slope down to the water below disguised by the foliage of the Florida forest. A family band with a man who went out of his way to become my “friend.”
It was a place that I loved until my grandparents confined me to the campsite no matter how much I begged and pleaded with them to let me go on a bike ride with my new “friend.”
This man was seemingly innocent to me. He told me stories of his daughter and all the toys that he still had of hers. Buckets of Barbie dolls, bins filled to the brim with Polly Pockets. Everything that I was excited about at a young age he had. I thought he was so amazing and I couldn’t wait until night time when I would get to see the band again and talk to him more and tell him everything about myself.
The best surprise was when he joined me while I was racing my cousin on our bicycles. That’s when he asked me, “Have you been on the bike trails yet? They’re so beautiful. Why don’t we go together and I’ll show you this afternoon.”
When I got home my mother hugged me with glazed eyes. That man had been a registered sex offender with a hidden identity, and a hidden agenda. Upon his arrest, he revealed his plan: Take the young naive girl on the bike trail. Rape her. Tell everyone she “slipped” off the edge.
I escaped a fate that too many children face. I escaped the death of my innocence and the cruel reality that would have been my end. A report from RAINN states that every nine minutes a child falls victim to sexual abuse.
You may be thinking that this is something that happens far away from St. Augustine, but you’re wrong. Data from the St. John’s County Sheriff’s Office shows that there are 12 registered sex offenders within a one mile radius of Flagler College.
This problem is not dwindling away. It is getting worse. A study done by the U.S. National Library of Medicine states that “sexual abuse was the strongest predictor of human trafficking: the odds of human trafficking was 2.52 times greater for girls who experienced sexual abuse, and there was a 8.21 times greater risk for boys who had histories of sexual abuse.”
So far in 2020 there have been 896 new cases of trafficking in Florida alone according to the World Population Review. Thousands of cases a year in the United States alone.
How are we teaching the children in our community how to protect themselves? How are we aiding them after their abuse? How do we prevent this epidemic from spreading more?
Kids can no longer be kids without having to constantly look over their shoulders. Kids can no longer enjoy the freedom that childhood offers. Their innocence is being ripped away from them, and no one seems to hear their muffled screams.
All I wanted that summer was to have fun, race my bike along dirt roads, swing from ropes into the cool water, enjoy burgers fresh off the grill. I wanted to be free.
I think that’s what every kid wants: freedom. It’s time we liberate them from their pain and suffering. It’s time to change the world we live in. I want my children to be able experience life to the fullest. Don’t you want that for yours?
The Boys and Girls Club of America have given five tips on how to put an end to human trafficking:
- Education. Increase your general knowledge and awareness of child sex trafficking, which can help identify potential sex trafficking victims and link them to professional advocates.
- Recognize the Signs. Recognizing the warning signs of child sex trafficking increases the ability to identify potential victims and provide help. Some red flags include: unexplained school absences; the presence of multiple cell phones, burner phones or erased call logs; multiple fake IDs; a young person appearing malnourished or hungry, or dressed inappropriately for weather conditions; bruises or other signs of physical trauma; signs of drug addiction; and, presence of a noticeably older, controlling or abusive “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.”
- Report Your Suspicions. Always report suspicions of child sexual abuse. Call your local law enforcement or The National Human Trafficking Hotline.
- Raise Awareness. Raise awareness in your family, among your peers and in your community on ways to recognize the signs and risk factors associated with child sex trafficking.
- Take Action. Become an advocate for victims and potential victims.