Child Trafficking, Exploitation Discussed At Seminar

STOCKTON — According to Jessica McKeever, the director of Safe Harbour Chautauqua County, there are currently 25 youth in the county who have met the definition or are at risk of sex trafficking.

McKeever recited this troubling statistic during a League of Women Voters luncheon seminar at the Stockton Hotel. Titled “Child Trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation in Chautauqua County,” the seminar featured McKeever along with Karen Yeversky, family advocate and training coordinator at the Child Advocacy Program (CAP) in Jamestown.

Safe Harbour is part of the YWCA of Jamestown and provides a program to address human trafficking in the county by working on prevention education.

“We are screening and starting to identify at-risk youth that have been confirmed as victims of trafficking,” McKeever said. “(We) provide services that might help meet some of the needs and help address the healing and treatment that (victims) may need.”

According to federal law, “Sex trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing or soliciting of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.”

“Three of those confirmed youth (in Chautauqua County) have met the federal definition (of sex trafficking),” McKeever said. “Thirteen were considered high risk and nine were considered medium risk.”

“The average age of a victim that has a case file opened is 14.8,” McKeever said. “Twenty-four percent of identified youth were male. All reported cases involved commercial sexual exploitation. Referral sources include Chile Protective Services (CPS), probation and the Child Advocacy Center.”

McKeever said that characteristics of youth who are at risk of becoming victims of sex trafficking include frequently missing school, going missing for periods of time and spending a lot of time on the streets.

“Runaway or homeless youth are at an increased risk for trafficking,” she said. “1.6 million kids nationally run away or are on the streets each year and one in five of those kids might experience some sort of exploitation.”

McKeever defined sexual exploitation as “Sex in exchange for anything of value. Specifically commercial sexual exploitation of children that refers to a range of crimes and activities involving sex abuse and exploitation of a child for the financial benefit of any person in exchange for something of value, monetary or non-monetary benefits given or received by any person.”

Safe Harbour is currently working with 14 of the 18 Chautauqua County school districts.

“We are pretty heavily involved in educating our youth about red flags and the (circumstances) that make them vulnerable to exploitation,” McKeever said.

One of the key areas McKeever educated classrooms about is how social media is often used by predators to lure children.

She told a story of how one such child was victimized by a predator who contacted her via social media.

“He groomed her for nine months,” McKeever said. “It built up over time and when they met face-to-face, he abducted her. That’s a common misconception that it starts with kidnapping and abduction. That’s not the number one way. It’s about building relationships first. He abducted her and victimized her. It was nearly a year before they found her.”

Yeversky, representing CAP, said that it is her organization’s mission “To end child abuse in Chautauqua County. When abuse occurs, we help coordinate a community response to bring healing, hope and justice to the child and their families. We have two centers – one in Jamestown and one in Fredonia.”

When it’s suspected that a child is a victim of sexual or physical abuse, CAP interacts with the child to gather information to build a case against the alleged abuser.

“It’s not an interrogation, it’s a conversation,” Yeversky clarified. “It’s open-ended; we allow the child to narrate and tell the interviewer whatever they’re ready to tell at that point.”

Yeversky stressed that the interviewer will first “Build rapport and get to know the child a little bit and eventually will steer the conversation in that direction but never force a child to tell something they’re not ready to tell.”

While the interview is being recorded, “In another room, we might have somebody from law enforcement or CPS or an assistant DA or one of the prosecutors. They can be observing the interview and getting the information for the investigation without the child having to speak to each person.”

Yeversky said that an estimated one in 10 children nationwide are sexually abused by the age of 18.

Applying those numbers to Chautauqua County, Yeversky said “we have a little over 29,000 (victims). If we packed those kids into school buses, they’d more than fill 41 school buses of children in our county who are likely to be sexually abused.”

Yeversky said that most kids who wind up as victims of sex trafficking were abused as children first.

“Ninety percent of children who are commercially sexually exploited were sexually abused first,” she said. “They begin to see themselves as sex objects.”

To find more information about Safe Harbour, Jessica McKeever can be reached at 268-1464 or via email at jessicam@ywcaofjamestown.com.

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