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More local children are being sexually exploited online


Children's Cove reports a regular annual increase in case referrals, with 364 just last year.

Every day, at least one child is a victim of sexual exploitation in our region.

Those findings were reported in the latest study from the children's advocacy centers for Cape Cod & the Islands, Bristol County and Plymouth County. The centers reported that 364 children were identified as alleged victims of sexual exploitation in 2023.

Morning Edition host Patrick Flanary spoke with Jacob Stapledon, community engagement and education program manager at Children's Cove about its effort to prevent human trafficking.

Patrick Flanary Human trafficking is going on right here in our region. Let's define what it is.

Jacob Stapledon, Children's Cove When we're talking about human trafficking, we're talking about a really large issue that I think sometimes can be misconstrued. It involves compelling or coercing a person to engage in commercial sex acts. And coercion can be subtle or overt, physical or psychological.

PF And this is happening mostly online, specifically on social media?

JS When we're talking about the sexual exploitation of children, there's a more specific definition involving children right here in Massachusetts.

It occurs when a person under the age of 18 is offered or given something of value in exchange for some type of sexual act.

It can take place online and it doesn't need to be for money for it to be commercial sexual exploitation. That value component could be anything of value to the child: food, clothing, a warm place to sleep, vapes, alcohol, or even a ride somewhere. It's preying upon an individual's vulnerability, and most of the time there is some type of an online component.

PF These numbers are way up over last year's.  

JS Yes. All our centers collectively received 364 referrals for children who are suspected of being sexually exploited. And what we are seeing is a regular increase in referrals across the region, of approximately 35% annually. So these numbers are just going up and up. 

PF And how do we fight it? I mean, it keeps going up. What do we as parents need to be doing? Do we need to take our phones away from our children? That's not really going to do it, is it?

JS No, it's not. I think this is the the challenge that we have: With something as broad as human trafficking or sexual exploitation of children, there's a lot of stigma and a lot of misunderstanding. And to really address this and catch cases sooner, we really need parents and caregivers to get involved.

As much as we would like to say, 'Let's eliminate that online access,' we know that that's not reasonable or feasible. Our world has permanently changed since COVID. We live in a very hybrid world now and a lot of components are online, and that's where children are socializing. So it's not about cutting off that access; it's about having conversations without judgment and recognizing that kids are going to make mistakes. But if they're going to be too afraid to come to you because they've made a mistake, then we're missing the boat.

PF What's an example of a conversation without judgment?

JS Not making a big to-do about it. Make it a car conversation: 'If somebody sends you a nude photo, what should you do in that situation?' Get your child's input. And let them know that if they're ever feeling pressured or make a mistake, that you want them to come to you so you can work on it together.

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