Man with grey hair holding sign that reads "Human Trafficking Happens Here"

The Truth About Trafficking From A 20-year Veteran of the Child Exploitation Task Force

This is an excellent piece of journalism by Alex Morris at Rolling Stone. It’s an interview with former FBI Special Agent Nikki Badolato. I want to start by just grabbing a couple of quotes from her about what she has seen over the last twenty years when it comes to sex trafficking because I think a lot of what we hear is not accurate, and some of it is outright lying.

She’s had enough of the way movies like Sound of Freedom both glamorize and trivialize the work she and her colleagues do, enough of the idea that swashbuckling white men burst through doors and rescue trafficked children with a Bible in one hand and a firearm in the other, enough of conspiracy theories about Hollywood and Washington that detract from the real root causes of why children are trafficked and abused. “Human trafficking is not the movie Pretty Woman — the girl doesn’t get the guy — and it’s not the movie Taken, where people are kidnapped in a foreign country and sold on the black market, or shipped in a container across the world,” one of the detectives who worked on Badolato’s task force tells me. “I’m not saying that doesn’t ever happen, but it’s not what we’re seeing.”

What they are seeing is a lot more insidious and a lot more homegrown.

Heartbreakingly, many of these children are victimized not by strangers who’ve abducted them from mall parking lots but rather by people they know and trust: Studies have found that as much as 44 percent of victims are trafficked by family members, most often parents (and not infrequently parents who were trafficked themselves).

The one common denominator was this: They all had a vulnerability that could be preyed upon. They all lacked a safety net — societal, familial, emotional, or some combination thereof — that might have broken their fall. Mostly, their stories weren’t dramatic; they were typical American tales of neglect, of abuse doled out casually, of a steady stream of letdowns by people and institutions who should have propped them up.

In her online undercover work, she’d plumbed the psychology of pedophiles, but now she wasn’t just dealing with suspects; she was spending time with victims and seeing the same vulnerabilities in them that the traffickers had seen: the instability or poverty, the addiction or mental health issues or abuse that had been normalized in their lives long before the traffickers entered them. Sometimes Badolato couldn’t help but feel that all the conspiracies and misconceptions weren’t just a distraction from the truth of trafficking but rather some sick attempt to let society off the hook for trying to solve the much more intractable problems at trafficking’s root. “People would rather stick their head in the sand than address the real problem, because then you have to face and talk about the societal issues,” she says.


I think she’s right about that last point. I’ve written many times about the stories I hear, over and over again, where people don’t want to hear about child abuse and sexual abuse. It’s too sad and dirty. It isn’t very pleasant. People don’t want to know about how much sex trafficking goes on right around us every day and the hard work we could do to solve the problem. They’d rather believe conspiracy theories and look to their “heroes,” who are nothing but con artists, to fix it for them by going on rescue missions or attacking the “elites” who are supposedly controlling all sex trafficking around the world. That seems simpler than solving the problems that make kids vulnerable to trafficking: poverty, abuse, racism, a lack of support for kids transitioning out of foster care, or LGBTQ kids whom their own families do not accept.

Those are real problems that create vulnerable kids who go on to become real victims. Fixing them will require hard work and resources from all of us. Too many people are not willing to do that work to provide a safety net so that kids aren’t so vulnerable that they can be manipulated and trafficked. I see many advocates discussing the importance of protecting children from predators. I don’t see nearly as many advocating for programs, policies, and resources that make children less vulnerable in the first place. If you care about keeping children safe, care about providing for them so they aren’t in a position to be trafficked first. Advocate for programs to prevent childhood poverty and support parents in their own mental health and addiction needs. Advocate against policies targeting LGBTQ kids and cutting resources for kids’ food programs—fund resources to assist kids who age out of foster care.

Don’t tell me you want to protect children and then do nothing to help prevent kids from being vulnerable in the first place.

Go back and read the whole article. Then, share it with the people you know who don’t understand that trafficking is in real life.

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