How to Tell If a Child Is Being Groomed, and What to Do about It

By Derri Smith, End Slavery Tennessee Founder and CEO

Grooming is the process by which traffickers build emotional connection in preparation for trafficking (or otherwise exploiting) their targeted victims. The groomer wants to sell the child, most often for sexual exploitation.

The groomer’s deliberate and methodical process can take days, weeks or months. The scheme may play out in person or, in many cases, online. The perpetrator may be a stranger but is often known; such as a family member, friend, professional or youth/club leader. Exploiters frequently insert themselves into positions with easy access to youth.

The Facts

  • 75% of underage sex trafficking victims said they were advertised or sold online.

  • A trafficker can make $150,000-$200,000 per child each year and exploits an average of 4-6 girls.

  • The average age of entry into the sex trade in the USA is 12 to 14 years.

  • In the state of Tennessee, an average of 94 to 110 minors are trafficked every month. 

SIDEBAR: A fifteen year old we served went to the library daily after school. A boy befriended her and started walking her home. He sold her a dream of marriage and happily ever after. Then he took her to a party where her beverage was drugged. She awoke to a room full of men raping her. Her ‘boyfriend’ sold her to gang members who trafficked her to make money for gang activities.

Children Often Don’t Speak Up Because 

  • They feel ashamed.

  • They feel guilty; the exploiter works to make them feel the whole situation is their fault and their idea.

  • They are unaware that they are being exploited, believing they are relating to a boyfriend or girlfriend who loves them. 

Some possible signs of grooming or trafficking of a minor include 

The young person

  • Becomes increasingly disconnected from family, friends, organizations and places of association.

  • Is truant, stops attending school, misses curfew or has other unexplained absences. 

  • Exhibits sudden and dramatic change in mood and/or behavior. 

  • Has knowledge of sexual terms beyond the norm for their age and stage of life.

  • Becomes secretive, including about their online activities. 

  • Has an unexplained sudden increase in money or material goods. 

  • Has inconsistent stories or appears to be coached. 

  • Has a prepaid cell phone. 

  • Has a new nickname and set of friends. Traffickers often give victims a “street name.” 

  • Drastically changes appearance and the way they dress. 

For other red flags, go here.

Of course, none of these red flags in themselves mean grooming or trafficking is occurring, nor is it an all-inclusive list. But the list can serve as a starting place, along with your own instinct and knowledge of the young person. 

How to Help the Children You Love

  • Talk about healthy and unhealthy relationships. There are many online and offline resources to help. This is one example.

  • Talk about difficult topics; keep the lines of communication open. And, while traffickers individualize their approaches, knowing some red flags and being educated about the issue in general can help protect the young person in your life. Education truly is power when it comes to exploitation. This article has a list to discuss with young people what exploiters might say to win the target’s interest and trust.

  • Pay attention to a young person’s phone bills. If unknown numbers show up, have open, honest conversations about who they are in contact with.

  • Use resources like those on KidSmartz.

  • Request training for your PTO or school.

If your child goes missing, go here for help.