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What does human trafficking look like in Seneca County? Child advocate explains

  • / Updated:
  • Rebecca Swift 

Human trafficking in Seneca County doesn’t look like the movie, “Taken.” It can look like a child alone, in their room, stuck in a bad situation because of their phones or laptops.

“We’re seeing youth who are getting caught up in some online exploitation,” said Melissa Gilbert, Child Advocacy Coordinator for Safe Harbors of the Finger Lakes. “Maybe they’re sending an inappropriate picture. Maybe there’s someone on the other end who’s making threats to them if they don’t continue to send videos or pictures that are sexual in nature.”

It can be someone older targeting someone underage, or it can be young people targeting other young people. That can look like sharing sensitive pictures around school.

Gilbert explained trafficking is when a sexual act is exchanged for something of value. It can be for money, clothes, housing, or simply love and affection.

Since 2022, eight more children have been identified as targets of trafficking in Seneca County, according to Safe Harbors. Since 2020, there have been about 20 children total. But Gilbert says there’s a lack of reporting to organizations like hers, or law enforcement.

“I wonder how much of it is actually happening in Seneca County that we’re not getting reports on,” Gilbert added. “I can only give you numbers based on what is reported to us. But we know kids are constantly on the internet, we know there is picture sharing, we know that things are happening. But it’s really just getting community involvement to work together to really identify this.”

When you give a child a phone, Gilbert said parents need to be vigilant about putting on parental controls. 

“We need to monitor the apps that they’re using and the conversations that they’re having between friends,” Gilbert said. “Really just kind of talk to them about how they can protect themselves and keep themselves safe.”

Normalizing the topic of sexual abuse and exploitation in families is something Gilbert hopes to accomplish. She gave the following tip to parents. 

“Coming out and asking questions, but trying to ask open-ended questions,” Gilbert suggested. “If a child says someone is making them do things I’m uncomfortable doing in exchange for money, or clothes, something, it should be reported to law enforcement. Or you can call us first and we’ll walk through those next steps. Let you child know this happened, it’s ok. Try not to blame them. In reality, the perpetrator never should have asked for those pictures to begin with. Calmly react and get the basic information so we can move forward with law enforcement or a mandated reporter.”

Safe Harbors of the Finger Lakes has been working with the Seneca County Youth Bureau under the Office of Child and Family Services. It’s for an anti-trafficking program to help raise awareness about what that means locally. They’re hoping more schools welcome them in for an anti-trafficking program geared toward 6-12th grade students.

You can call Safe Harbor’s24/7 hotline at 800-247-7273.

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