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Arkansas officials urge awareness of child trafficking: 'It is here'

Judge Stacey Zimmerman with Madison and Washington counties says there is roughly three to four kids per month that are victims of sex trafficking.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — There are currently 28 million people estimated across the world who are victims of human trafficking.

Human trafficking could be labor trafficking cases, but many cases involve sex trafficking, especially with minors. 

The average age of sex trafficking victims is 12 years old. Many people think human trafficking occurs in larger cities and states, which is a common misconception.

“I thought this was an issue in big cities like Los Angeles or New York City, but no, it is here, it is going on and these are our kids,” said Judge Stacey Zimmerman, circuit judge for Madison and Washington counties. 

Judge Zimmerman has been working with minors for more than 20 years.

“Kids are being sexually abused and trafficked. You may not hear about it, but it’s been very prevalent with the highway and with people being in a mobile society,” said Judge Zimmerman.

And, unfortunately, it’s a problem she does not see stopping anytime soon, especially with social media.

“A kid is on social media, talking to someone they think is a teenager and it turns out it’s a registered sex offender or adult person who’s on there for the specific reason of snatching that kid and taking them away,” Zimmerman said.

Judge Zimmerman says she sees anywhere from three to four kids a month in her courtroom that have been or are current victims of sex trafficking.

Into the Light is a local non-profit organization that assists victims of human trafficking. 

The organization provides prevention efforts for high-risk children and intervention efforts for kids that are being trafficked. They also provide crisis response with the help of law enforcement in the community.

Gretchen Smeltzer, the executive director of Into the Light, says the non-profit has helped more than 160 victims in the last year. She explained that not all sex trafficking victims are girls, and that of the 160 the organization has helped this past year, at least 10 have been boys.

"Children should never be bought and sold for sex ever. It should not be happening in our world and in our community,” said Smeltzer.

FBI spokesperson Connor Hagan explained how not everyone realizes they are a victim because every trafficking case is different than the other. 

“If you are being forced to engage in sexual acts, or engage in a sexual activity that you don’t want to, if you haven’t eaten in two or three days, if you don’t have your own ID or your own bank account because someone controls that for you, then leave,” said Hagan. 

The FBI leads more than 85 task forces centered on stopping human trafficking throughout the U.S., including two here in Arkansas.

According to the FBI, you should call 911 immediately if you see something suspicious.

They also suggest different things you can do to help prevent yourself from becoming a victim:

  • Never add anyone you don’t know on social media
  • Refrain from posting personal information and be aware of who you are talking to at all times
  • Know your surroundings and use the buddy system
  • Parents should be involved and know what is going on in their kids’ lives

Judge Zimmerman explained that educating individuals about human trafficking and the risks that are out there in society is key to prevention.

“If we don’t learn more about it and ways to prevent it, like talking to Into the Light, the FBI, law enforcement, teachers and other people in our community, we can't stop it. It's going to continue to grow and it's going to continue to harm our kids in Northwest Arkansas,” said Judge Zimmerman.

If you or someone you know is or has been a victim of sex trafficking there are multiple resources available to help.

You can start by calling or texting the National Human Trafficking Hotline number 1-888-373-7888 or by visiting their website here

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