The allegations in last week’s Boston Globe Magazine are unthinkable: Kate Price, visiting scholar at Wellesley College, says her own father abused her and sold her for sex at a truck stop when she was just a small child.
But such abuse is not as uncommon as we may want to believe: Five readers contacted the Globe after the story was published to say that they, too, had been trafficked for sex by a family member, and many more reached out to share their memories of sexual abuse perpetrated by close relatives.
Teresa, a Boston resident in her 60s, alleges she and her cousins were trafficked by her grandfather in Philadelphia when she was a young child. She said she, too, struggled to understand her memories from her early childhood, and eventually became a mental health professional in part to better understand her own past.
“I also was pimped out by my family, and like (Kate Price), that’s not something easily talked about with anyone,” said Teresa, who asked that the Globe use her middle name to protect her privacy.
Experts on sexual abuse say that research on children trafficked by family members is still in its infancy, but there is a growing recognition that it may be part of an unaddressed crisis.
“We’re in the dark ages in all of this,” said Jody Raphael, an attorney and longtime research fellow studying violence against women at the DePaul College of Law in Chicago. “I think we’re absolutely nowhere given what I think is the scope of the problem.”
That’s in large part because anti-trafficking advocates have focused on professional traffickers moving victims across state lines, with limited attention to family members acting as pimps.
“There’s quite a long history of familial child sexual exploitation” stretching back to the 70s, said Michael Salter, an associate professor of criminology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, but “it’s been largely ignored in anti-trafficking efforts.”
Familial trafficking is “just beginning to be understood in the field, [and] is difficult to identify,” concluded a report released by the US Department of State last year. It is often far harder to discern and prosecute than other kinds of human trafficking, the report continues, thanks in part to “child’s inherent loyalty to and reliance on the family structure.”
Kate Price alleges that her father sexually abused her and used a CB radio to traffic her to truckers who drove along Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania. Her father has denied the allegations. There has been no investigation or charges brought against her father, and Price isn’t sure if she plans to pursue a criminal complaint.
The numbers suggest a stark picture of what is happening behind closed doors.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received more than 17,200 reports of possible child sex trafficking in 2021, and its CyberTipline received more than 29.3 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation from all 50 states that same year, a 42 percent increase over 2019.
Though the center does not track the relationship between victims and their alleged abusers, other data suggest family members are playing a significant role. The advocacy group Polaris Project found that 42 percent of victims were brought into trafficking by their own families, according to its 2020 survey data.
“There’s more and more survivors like Kate [Price] that are raising their voices and saying ‘I was trafficked’” by a family member, said Melissa Snow, executive director of child sex trafficking programs at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “Familial trafficking is incredibly prevalent, and starting to be much more talked about.”
Snow said that, 20 years ago, anti-trafficking advocates focused mainly on foreign nationals who were being trafficked into the United States. A second wave of attention centered on domestic trafficking run by professional pimps. Now the conversation is turning to trafficking within families.
“I think we’re in what I would call like the third wave of the anti-trafficking movement,” she said.
Familial trafficking typically involves the trafficker grooming a small child into sexual abuse.
When a family member is the trafficker, “the exploitation is often normalized and accepted within the family culture, sometimes spanning generations,” the State Department report found. “Family members entrusted with caring for the children are often the ones grooming, manipulating, abusing, and exploiting them. In many of these cases, children may simply have no other trusted adults actively engaged in their lives.”
Poverty and addiction are often contributing factors, with marginalized and vulnerable children in unstable environments who are most at risk.
“You’re looking at individuals who are seeing this as a way to get out of poverty or to live a lifestyle that they want, or to fund their habits,” said Heather Shnyder, a victims advocate for Transitions of PA, a nonprofit that assists victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse in central Pennsylvania.
She said she often sees instances where family members start sexually abusing a child, then begin selling pornographic images online, and then progress to trafficking a child. “Sex trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, profiting over $150 billion a year.”
Sadly, sex trafficking of relatives can become an intergenerational crisis in some families, with some parents who have been trafficking victims repeating the cycle with their own kids. “We see the way it’s passed down from generation to generation so frequently,” said Lisa Goldblatt Grace, co-executive director of My Life My Choice, a Boston-based advocacy group that works with young trafficking survivors.
Much of familial trafficking remains hidden and underreported by victims who find it far harder to report a parent than it is to report a stranger. The opposite applies, too: Should a child run away from their abusive home, that family is not likely to report them missing. And privacy laws meant to protect the victims also prevents the public from finding out when traffickers are related to their victims.
Salter, of the University of New South Wales, argues that far more needs to be done to train law enforcement to identify this issue. “We can see trafficking investigations that don’t consider that parents might be involved,” he said.
Salter said that the clergy abuse scandals and Jeffrey Epstein revelations have awakened the public to the staggering scale of child sexual abuse generally, much of which was perpetrated by abusers who believed that children couldn’t remember anything from their earliest years.
“That message that children don’t remember was used by pedophiles for a really long time to justify their abuse of children,” he said.
“We haven’t been overreacting to child sexual abuse, we’ve been underreacting,” he continued. “And in that process, we disenfranchise decades of victims who have been speaking up. ... We shouldn’t be complicit in that.”
Boston abuse survivor Teresa said she — like Kate Price — was ostracized by her family after approaching them with her allegations. Teresa believes her mother knew about her grandfather’s abuse, and even recalled her acknowledging as much in a conversation. “One time when we were trying to talk, I heard her say to herself, ‘He said you wouldn’t remember,’” Teresa recalled.
She said Kate Price’s decision to tell her story publicly is an important step in helping all victims of familial trafficking.
“It’s been a powerful experience for me to have read this story,” she said, “and I’m going to be processing it for a while.”
Janelle Nanos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.