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Cape advocacy center expands to confront rise in child trafficking

"A lot of the places that children go is where predators and exploiters go," says Jacob Stapledon, education coordinator at Children's Cove. Those places are often Instagram and Snapchat.

Child advocates say more kids and teenagers on the Cape, Coast and Islands are being exploited for sex online.

Predators have seized on vulnerability during the pandemic, as children spend more time on social media.

For 25 years, Children's Cove has been the region’s only advocacy center working to prevent trafficking. The agency is now expanding its staffing to meet a greater need as it works to support law enforcement investigations of abuse. Last year, victims were identified in Hyannis, Mashpee and Fall River.

Morning Edition's Patrick Flanary spoke to Jacob Stapledon, the community engagement and education coordinator at Children's Cove.

Patrick Flanary: Do people realize that human trafficking is happening here?

Jacob Stapledon: Oftentimes when people hear about the trafficking of children, they don't think Massachusetts, they don't think New England, they don't think the United States. And we have to really berate that misconception in order for us to start combating this. And that really starts with prevention, and parents and caregivers having that conversation with their children. This is a moneymaking industry. While we don't necessarily see those types of cases on the Cape, this is an issue in our state.

PF: I was surprised to read that these adults are not necessarily in it for money.

JS: No, a lot of times these types of cases are not specifically related to trying to make money. It's simply exploitation of that person for sexual acts, taking advantage of their images online. It's typically related to having power and control over another person.

PF: And online is generally where traffickers are finding children, in about 90% of cases. Where online is it happening most?

JS: A lot of the places that children go is where predators and exploiters go. That is where these people are. And we're seeing it taking place on Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp. A lot of these key social-media and messaging platforms is where this is taking place.

PF: The year 2021 was the year of the pandemic. Did that make it easier for traffickers because so many more kids are online more often?

JS: Three hundred child victims were a combination of the cases across the Cape and Islands, across Bristol County and across Plymouth County. We did receive an 86% increase in our referrals. One of our largest concerns going into the beginning of the pandemic was, when children were being pushed more into those online spaces, those incidents of online exploitation were going to increase as well.

PF: Children's Cove just brought on another forensic interviewer. Does expanding your staff suggest that the problem is getting worse?

JS: We've really seen an increase in our cases over the last several years. We've brought on a number of new staff and reevaluated how our roles were going to be supportive of children and non-offending family members across the Cape and Islands. So we've expanded our availability opportunities to provide those forensic interviews because there has been an increased need.

PF: I imagine such an interviewer has to treat these interactions with the utmost sensitivity because they're talking to children who have been victims of abuse.

JS: When our forensic interviewers meet with children between the ages of 2 and 17, they're there to get all the information needed to support the investigation for law enforcement and for the Department of Children and Families, so that that child doesn't have to be interviewed numerous times. So without this child-advocacy process, child victims on average would be questioned by as many as eight individuals, and have to repeat their story in full detail between nine and 11 times. The forensic interviewers are able to do that in a safe place to support the child as well as support the investigation.

PF: Talk about the arrests that result from your work with Children's Cove, and how you determine the success.

JS: One of our focuses is really on the happiest outcome for the child. We're here to provide that compassionate, efficient, child-friendly location for that abuse intervention. So when we work in partnership with law enforcement, we're there to support their investigation. And where our organization takes over is to really look at how we support this child moving forward.

PF: What are parents supposed to do? Are we supposed to monitor everything our children do online, and typically how old is a victim of trafficking?

JS: The average age of exploitation of children, both online and in the in-person setting, is typically between 12 and 14 years old. One of our primary messages of prevention is to talk with your children. There's no perfect time to have these conversations with children, but it should be early and often. As parents we talk a lot about fire safety, safety around water, cars, streets. But we sometimes avoid these conversations about our bodies and private parts. By engaging in these difficult conversations early, it allows more opportunity to have conversations about online safety in the future.

Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.