No, really. You probably don’t have to bring bodyguards, tape your kids to your legs, or spray them with anti-trafficking spray before venturing out of your house.
I feel the need to say this because that “we almost got sex trafficked in Ikea” story is foolish and dangerous — and still making the rounds.
Here’s the backstory, if you missed it:
Diandra Toyos, a mom from Southern CA, was at an Ikea store with her three young kids. She noticed that a couple of guys weren’t shopping and didn’t appear to be with anyone who was shopping, but seemed to be following her family around. She eventually talked to security and then left.
She reports to social media:
Something was off. We knew it in our gut. I am almost sure that we were the targets of human trafficking. This is happening all over. Including the United States. It’s in our backyards. I’m reading more and more about these experiences and it’s terrifying. If not that, something else shady was obviously going on. Either way, as parents, we NEED to be aware.
The story got tens of thousands of shares, and moms across the country trembled with fear.
Let’s start with the good information in her account.
1. It’s a good idea to listen to your gut (unless your gut constantly cries wolf). There is nothing wrong with looking for help if you feel like something is “off,” even if you’re not sure exactly what it is that’s wrong.
2. It’s a good idea to keep track of your young kids. Pay attention, because kids can get into all kinds of trouble in a short time.
Now let’s talk about what’s insane and dangerous in this mom’s message.
First, whatever happened at Ikea, if anything, it almost certainly wasn’t a close call with human trafficking. People who are actual experts in the field say this simply isn’t how human trafficking works.
“There are zero indicators of human trafficking in Toyos’ story. Zero,” says Lara Powers in the L.A. Times. Powers, “a professional in the anti-trafficking field,” insists the same thing as every other expert I’ve encountered:
I have never seen, read or heard about a real sex-trafficking situation in which a child was abducted by traffickers in broad daylight at a busy store under a mother’s watchful eye. It’s just not the way it works.
How does it work, then?
Victims are recruited, manipulated, made dependent. The psychological and emotional ties they establish are highly effective. Trafficked children are unlikely to attempt escape.They often won’t snitch on their traffickers even if law enforcement approaches them.
Among common patterns of sex-trafficking recruitment and control: Parents or foster care parents selling their children. Or runaway, homeless youth, many of whom identify as LGBTQ, picked up at bus stops by traffickers who exploit their hunger and need for shelter. Or a young girl who falls in love with a man who says he loves her too, then pimps her out.
And while child sex trafficking can happen to anyone, children of color, children with a past history of sex abuse, children who come from broken or unstable homes, children who face poverty, and children with disabilities are especially vulnerable.
Here is a more typical story of human trafficking: An impoverished teenager named “Blessing” flees Nigeria in hopes of finding work. Once she has been moved across several borders, her handlers try to push her into prostitution. She’s ransomed; she’s shuttled around some more, imprisoned, put out to sea, rescued, and then released in Italy.
This is a horribly typical, very common story of a child caught up in human trafficking. She is alone; she is poor; she is black; she has few connections; her home government is a shambles; her parents don’t know where she is; she has no help. She is very obviously vulnerable in several different ways.
In other words, she is most likely nothing like your child. Your child is almost certainly safe from trafficking. It’s not a matter of holding your child’s hand especially tight when you’re shopping for futons; it’s a matter of having a family, being a member of a community, speaking the native language, having some resources. These are the facts, as described by the latest report on human trafficking from the U.S. government.
Worse: Focusing on unlikely dangers can make us careless about actual risk, either to our own kids or to others’. As the op-ed piece in the LA Times says the Ikea story
so misrepresents the dangers, warning signs and risks associated with sex trafficking that its readers and likers may now try to protect kids by watching for the wrong things in the wrong places. They may miss real sex trafficking as it happens; they may miss the opportunity to extend a lifeline to child who needs their help. What people don’t understand about sex trafficking can prove lethal to kids.
There’s another risk, too. Irrational fear is bad for us, directly, immediately. I know what irrational fear can do. At the height of the anthrax scare, when my husband travelled a lot and I was alone in our apartment with three very young children, I barely dared to venture into the fenced back yard. Shopping for groceries, going to the library, or stopping at McDonald’s for fries were all perilous nightmares.
I was so caught up in avoiding and outwitting irrational, unlikely dangers that I had no emotional energy left to tend to the actual, present needs of early childhood: the need for calm, the need for peace, the need for a little freedom, and the need to feel safe and secure, rather than embattled and in flight.
Fear distorts our reason. It leads us to make bad decisions, and it leads us to teach poor decision-making to the kids who see us constantly fearful and anxious. The day after the “We almost got sex trafficked in Ikea” story came out, a young mother of one confided to a group that she was rethinking having any more children. The world just seemed so dangerous to her, she couldn’t see how it was possible to keep a second child safe. It seemed that merely leaving the home all but guaranteed that something awful would happen. After all, it happened in Ikea! Or almost happened! Or, well, something almost happened . . .
Bad things do happen. Kids sometimes get kidnapped. Tree limbs fall on people’s heads. Sinkholes open up in the playground. Stray bullets make their way into the skulls of innocent people. Bad things do happen, even to the children of vigilant parents.
But when Jesus said, “Be not afraid,” it wasn’t because He simply wasn’t up to speed on all the dangers that the modern world can possibly present. It was because He knew that fear drives out reason, makes it harder to think, makes it harder to love. Fear makes it harder to live the lives we are given, driving us instead to scurry around in a shadowy world of horrible possibilities. Fear is a thief.
Sometimes, fear makes us cruel, leading us to blame others for their misfortunes because we believe that we, ourselves, are so wise, prudent, responsible (and preemptively fearful) that we are different, we will be safe, we can be in control.
But we are not in control. More fear will not make us more in control.
It is very hard. We are obligated to be careful and prudent with our children, to routinely reassess how we are caring for them, and to take legitimate threats seriously, because we love them and must care for them. And they are, by definition, vulnerable. That is just how it is. The responsibility can be terrifying, overwhelming, if we let fear take over.
But more fear is not the same as more love. Love illuminates; fear butts our reason. Love gives us courage to act when something is wrong; fear tells us that the world is full of nothing but wrongness. It doesn’t make us safer to be more fearful. It’s not harmless to pass along hysterical warnings “just in case.” It’s not harmless to endlessly ruminate over what might possibly happen if we’re not perfectly vigilant at all times. Irrational fear makes us less safe, not more. It makes us live less, not more.
Image: By Thomas.ZAPATA (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons