Imagine a six-year-old girl, whose father is a firefighter and mother stays at home. She has trouble paying attention in school, but nothing more than what teachers expect out of a six-year-old. She likes to spend her time outside. There is a park across the street from her house where she swings and plays well into the night. Most nights, the girl is swept out of bed by her uncle, who then takes her to his house and sells her for sex work for $300. Her parents receive compensation for staying silent.

If this was your child, would you turn a blind eye?

These children are experiencing the second largest illegal industry in the United States: sex trafficking. Safe House Project is trying to shrink that statistic with its online training course, OnWatch.

Safe House Project is a nonprofit that builds and funds houses for sex trafficking survivors and aids in their recovery from abuse. Launched in 2018, the organization has funded a safe house in South Africa. In 2019, they have given 32 safe house beds for survivors, given $50,000 worth of physical assets, trained 10,000 people on sex trafficking prevention, and more.

Under Our Noses

OnWatch is an hour-long course that teaches everyday people how to identify sex trafficking victims and debunks the stereotypes and false images of sex trafficking in the United States. According to the website, hundreds of thousands of children are part of the sex trafficking industry each year. The average age of entry into the industry is 12. Only 1% of sex trafficking victims, however, are identified in the U.S., according to the OnWatch website.

“The problem here in the states and the reason why it happened right under our noses is because we live under this faulty belief that we’re safe and those poor children outside of our country we got to go help,” said Safe House Project Director and Christian Rapper Legin.

Culture’s Influence

Mainstream culture, especially the music industry, is one reason for sex trafficking growing in the United States. Kristi Wells, co-founder, and CEO of Safe House Project said that children, especially girls, are fed a narrative that the idea of sex trafficking is acceptable, which grooms them to accept this narrative as they grow into teenagers and adults. The music industry is especially guilty, Wells said, of communicating that sex trafficking is normal.

“There are so many societal norms that are entrapping youth today that are making them believe these guys that are reaching out to them on Instagram to say ‘you’re beautiful’, ‘you should be a model’, and then start engaging with them; telling them that they’ll take care of them and they’ll be their sugar daddy,” Wells said.

This issue is only continuing to grow. Wells said COVID-19 aided traffickers in their business. Since people are staying indoors, kids are now at home with their traffickers without a temporary escape. According to reports the Safe House project received, traffic increased 40% during COVID-19 social distancing. One reason why the nonprofit created OnWatch was to prepare people for when the stay-at-home orders ended. Victims will finally be able to leave their homes and show the signs of their abuse.

“When you say that, peoples’ eyes get really big because, again, people think creepy dudes in white vans,” Legin said. “Sometimes it’s uncles, it’s dads, it’s moms, it’s grandparents. For a lot of these kids, their only escape is school.”

The six-year-old girl mentioned earlier is not a phenomenon in the sex trafficking world. Wells said 40% of victims’ traffickers are a family member. Including that 40%, 66% of the time a victim’s trafficker is someone the victim has a relationship with and views as trustworthy, explained Wells.

Reception

So far, Wells said the reception for OnWatch has been “incredible.” Industry experts have adapted the training for their own use. The survivor community, which is the biggest co-sign to Wells, has promoted it. Even the White House Task Force is looking to endorse OnWatch as national training.

Wells said OnWatch currently is not a completed project. Brittany Dunn, co-founder and COO of Safe House Project, and Wells are already preparing for the “beautiful burden” of another installment for the website. Eventually, the organization wants OnWatch to become “the largest survivor informed training platform in the United States,” Wells said, by creating training for all areas and groups that are affected by sex trafficking.

“Those survivors that have written [OnWatch] alongside us are so excited,” Wells said. “They have said ‘if someone had taken this kind of training when I was being trafficked, my story could have been different.’”

Safe House Project and everyone who partnered with them to create OnWatch crafted the training to change the world. You can change the world too by going to iamonwatch.org and taking the course.