How Predators Choose Victims


Traffickers have the ability to quickly assess a potential target for vulnerability and then to exploit that weakness, fear, or anxiety. We've learned from rescued victims that kids who wind up trafficked were often completely blind to their vulnerability, with many walking willingly right into the trap.

My friend and colleague, Robyn Pruitt, Executive Director of Freedom Place joined me recently to present a workshop to help child welfare providers protect foster kids from Commercial Sexual Exploitation. I learned so much from Robyn. In her gentle and humble approach to caring for rescued trafficking victims, she told me that she learns every day from the girls in her care.

Robyn explained that many of the girls rescued from trafficking are eager to return to their pimp “boyfriend.” The distorted “family-type” structure created by the pimp and his “stable” of girls are the only family some girls have ever known. It is their identity, and without it they have none. Robyn went on to explain that rescued trafficking victims are like domestic violence victims who often return to their pimp many times before getting out entirely, whether through rescue or death.

Robyn made an interesting statement about her belief that foster care can instill in a child what she calls, “institutional vulnerability,” the sense of helplessness that stems from being the one removed from the family while the abuser is out living his or her life, free to do whatever he or she wants to do. Robyn isn’t suggesting that foster care, in itself, is a bad thing, but that the feeling of one’s life being completely outside of his or her control prepares the kid for the trafficker taking complete control. Consider that when kids come into foster care, they’ve been taken against their will to a place that is strange to them. They are often not allowed to call their family, friends, former neighbors, etc., without permission and without someone listening in on their conversations.

In this way, foster care serves to normalize the conditions typical of those with the trafficker, where the kid is in a strange place and has no ability to communicate with anyone outside the “family” without permission and without someone listening in.

We know from the Orange County, CA trafficking study done in 2013 that many rescued trafficking victims reported having no father in their lives, having a poor relationship with their mother, living in poverty, having been molested as a child, and/or having run away from home. Robyn, added that the girls who have lived at Freedom Place nearly always report having had no “anchor” in their lives. The “anchor” is that stable person who wants nothing from the child other than what’s best for him or her.

The anchor can be a teacher, a Court Appointed Special Advocate, a Royal Family Kids volunteer, a mentor or coach, an extended family member, a neighbor, a pastor, or anyone who is willing to be that person to a kid who needs someone who cares.

To protect foster kids from being trafficked, perhaps we can make a greater effort to help them stay connected to any “anchors” they’ve had in their lives, or better yet, let’s BE anchors for the kids within our influence.


Rhonda's description of vulnerable children provides a chilling assessment of risk factors that may increase victimization among children in foster care. As she notes, being connected to an “anchor” can make the difference between a good outcome after foster care and a tragic one.

Child advocates and foster care providers do their best to assess the kids within their influence and to identify gaps that need to be addressed in order to reduce pain and vulnerability to exploitation. Unfortunately, someone else has an eye on these marginalized children, the predator.

Imagine a panther following a herd of deer.

The panther is patient and keeps her distance while she analyzes the herd. Like the panther, predators target two categories of vulnerable potential victims. The first group are the ones who lag behind, often weaker, injured, and with no apparent options. The second group doesn't often get much attention.

These are the kids with big dreams or loners who are not interested in what everyone else wants to do.

They are more likely to get far ahead of the herd while trying to fulfill their dreams, or find themselves far away from the herd after having been distracted. No matter how or why, they are away from the safety of the herd. The panther is waiting for just the right moment.

Understanding this tactic helps us plan intervention strategies based on risk assessment rather than one-size-fits-all assessment models.

We need to think like the predator. That means acknowledging that prevention strategies that are largely focused on warning models that teach the weaker, injured, and discouraged child to stay with the herd may produce discouraging results and may actually increase the child’s sense of hopelessness.

This model may even increase a child’s willingness to go with a trafficker as an attempt to try something different. Instead, it may be more effective to build a peer community that notices the one behind and the one drifting away and does something about it.

An example of this model is practiced by our Vanguard student club, Live2free. Live2free peer led human trafficking training integrates students learning to identify risk for recruitment by an exploiter.

This is part of a class presentation on the two forms of modern day slavery, labor or sex trafficking. When these university students explain the tactics of the predators, they include ALL of the students (our herd example) to role play several scenarios and then ask: What will you say/do if you see this happening to someone in your class?

Email for more information on this as well as other Live2free resources.

Teaching potential victims how to recognize the red flags may have little effect. But building a peer group mentality creates kinship, belonging, and responsibility for those in “my group,” “my herd.”

When someone is drifting away or lagging behind, part of the group needs to slow the pace, or offer an option. If someone is getting too far ahead, the group needs to get their attention, call them back. They also need to know when to seek help.

The peer group may be the only ones who notice a child is drifting too far away or is missing.

Teaching them to call 888.3737.888 (which can be anonymous), may alert authorities and prevent disaster.