Human trafficking is an issue that has received more and more attention in recent years, as the truths about this modern form of slavery have come to light. But many of us may still believe that we are far removed from this horrible industry, and that it could never touch us or our families.
But mother and daughter Kelly and Courtney Litvak think differently. After Courtney was a victim of human trafficking, the pair founded Childproof America, a nationwide nonprofit aimed at empowering families to fight sex trafficking. Kelly and Courtney join Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s episode of Family Policy Matters to tell their story, and shed some light on the dark truths of human trafficking.
Courtney shares that in high school in “white suburbia,” traffickers pursued her in person and via social media. “I believed I found my solution to all of my problems, to my hurts, my trauma. And that was what ultimately led to me getting involved in the life of sex trafficking.”
The mental and emotional grooming process, Courtney continues, ultimately led to an inability to leave her traffickers. “When people imagine someone who’s being ‘held against their will,’ they imagine them maybe in chains. That is not the case. People need to break these stereotypes and realize this is more about relationships and people, the heart and the mind. […] I mean you have trusted and engaged and conversed and began to care about that trafficker, that person who has manipulated you enough that you’ve decided to physically go be with that person. Now once you’re there, they have your mental control.”
So what can parents do to make sure this doesn’t happen to their children? Parents need to accept that this is a real, very masterful crime that can infiltrate the best of families,” says Kelly. “The best defense for parents is to understand this issue and have their children understand this issue. Social media is a major gateway for predators to get access to kids. Parents need to have safeguards in place with their children, so their children understand that just because they’re sitting in their bedroom and they’re on a device, that does not necessarily mean at all that they’re safe.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear more of Litvaks’ story, and how the pair has joined together to inform and protect other families from similar experiences.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Parents can imagine a few nightmares more traumatic than the thought of their child being kidnapped or lured into a human trafficking ring.
Today, we’re joined by a mother and daughter, Kelly and Courtney Litvak, whose personal experience with human trafficking led them to start a national nonprofit called Childproof America, which is aimed at empowering families in the battle against sex trafficking. Courtney was recently appointed by President Trump to the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking.
Kelly and Courtney Litvak, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
KELLY LITVAK: Thank you, Traci, for having us.
COURTNEY LITVAK: Hi there.
TRACI GRIGGS: First of all, I think it’s important to begin by saying that human trafficking can take many forms. It can involve forced labor of any kind and not necessarily sex related, but your organization focuses mostly on sex trafficking. Isn’t that correct?
KELLY LITVAK: That is correct, Traci. There is globally a very powerful and destructive epidemic that is under the umbrella of trafficking, labor trafficking being one and sex trafficking being the other. Childproof America is focused exclusively on sex trafficking.
TRACI GRIGGS: This cause is very personal for you two; could you tell us why?
KELLY LITVAK: Back in 2015, our beautiful daughter was pursued in her high school in suburbia. And at that time as a parent, I was very ill equipped to understand what this issue was. And so, because of that and a lot of other factors, we were not successful as the case intensified, and our daughter was pursued and approaching her 18th birthday.
COURTNEY LITVAK: Yes. And so, going on from what my mom’s talking about, this is so personal to us because this happened to us; this is something we lived through. I myself, being a survivor leader now, lived through this firsthand for years. But this began in my community. This began in my high school. This began with mutual friends. And so, this is personal in so many ways. This is personal for everybody, but for us, just reminding ourselves where this all began and seeing the gaps that we experienced and wanting to fill those gaps for other people, so that we can prevent as many people as possible from experiencing and going through what my family and myself did.
TRACI GRIGGS: Right, and it looks much different, doesn’t it, than I think most people might think. I mean, you’ve left your home; you willingly got into a car and went with them and stayed with them. So, talk a little bit about this lure, and what caused you to voluntarily walk into that life.
COURTNEY LITVAK: All of us during our teenage years go through a very difficult time. And I myself had a very hard time in high school where I experienced a hard breakup. I got into an abusive relationship, and that abusive relationship led to trauma that ultimately ensued me getting involved in very unhealthy relationships, partaking in very risky and unhealthy behaviors, and experimenting with medicating myself with substances back in high school. And so, all of that drew the attention of very bad people, who had very bad intentions for me, but they displayed themselves as wonderful people, who actually had my best interests and could solve all my problems. And now what I want to make a point and point this out: if somebody presents themselves and says they can solve all of your problems? Nobody, absolutely nobody, can do that. It’s not humanly possible, and that should be a huge red flag.
And so moving on from that, I believed I found my solution to all of my problems, to my hurts, my trauma, you know, all these things I had been through. And that ultimately led to me getting involved in the life of sex trafficking, and what drew me into this new reality that I thought was the solution to all my problems.
KELLY LITVAK: Traci, there was one part of your question that I think is incredibly important for us to address, and that was specifically when Courtney left our home just after her 18th birthday and got in the car with these individuals who had been communicating with her. I think it’s important then to have Courtney speak to that specific event and then what transpired right from there.
COURTNEY LITVAK: Yeah. So, what is important for people to understand is that so much of the communication with people was done, yes, in person in my school and in my community, but over social media. So, somebody I had never met before on social media because I was being groomed by multiple people at the same time. But this one individual whom I had been conversing with online via Snapchat and Instagram—the two major social media platforms for the youth today and then—I met this person for the first time that day and got in the car with them. And as soon as I got in the car and met them for the first time I saw that I had been misled, and I could tell that I was in a dangerous situation and that I had lost control now of the situation I was in. But it took up until that point because you have so much confidence and you’re so reassured through a screen, through other people. When you see face-to-face what’s been pursuing you the whole time and the true intention that lies beneath, the entire time is exposed and brought to the surface as this person does not have your best interest and has been planning to exploit and profit from you from gaining your trust and all those things, that reality does not hit until it is too late. And they know that because it is a methodical process, and that is very important for people to know more about.
TRACI GRIGGS: Right. So, this is part of the whole “grooming” process. Could you explain what that is for people that may not understand what that is?
KELLY LITVAK: Yes, Traci, I can speak to that. The grooming stages and the behaviors that present are so classic and very consistent throughout many, many cases that we have worked on. The grooming process will start very subtly. So, in our case specifically with our daughter, it was just befriending. People were coming into her life and striking up a conversation and a relationship, which is very normal during teen years, and then that escalates to isolation and introduction of substances. And so, we as parents at that point saw some very clear behavior changes. We were not able to identify exactly what was going on. Grooming for sex trafficking never entered our mind. We felt that, you know, as a teenager, she was rebelling; she was trying to find her independence and doing what normal teens do. But as things escalated, the behavior became so severe, and by the time we found out what was going on, she was deep into the grooming process and very brainwashed. And at that point, it’s very important for the traffickers and groomers to separate their target from their authority in their life, which was us as parents. We were now the enemy. We were just completely out of control, and that is very classic of the grooming process.
TRACI GRIGGS: Courtney, talk about why you couldn’t walk away. Once you realized that you were in a dangerous place and you had been misled, what kept you there?
COURTNEY LITVAK: This question you just asked me is so important to be talked about and to be addressed, because it’s not a clear-cut answer that people are able to just come to their own conclusion. There’s so much more to the brainwashing to the mental control. That is what people need to speak to, not the physicality. When people imagine someone who’s being “held against their will,” they imagine them maybe in chains. Maybe they imagine them physically being bound, something holding them where they are where they’re in danger, and otherwise if they had any control themselves, they would choose to leave. Okay, that is not the case, because trafficking can be referred to as many names that people may understand. This can be referred to as pimping, as romancing, as trafficking, because when you’re in the street and you’re engaging in this activity, you’re not calling it human sex trafficking. People need to break these stereotypes and these stigmas and realize this is more about relationships and people, the heart and the mind.
When people have already been through the grooming process, so they’ve built that emotional connection in that relationship. By the time that they’re in that person’s physical control, and when I say that they’re living with that person, I don’t mean they’re bound by physical chains. I mean that person has trusted and engaged and conversed and began to care about that pimp or that trafficker. The person who has manipulated them enough that they’ve decided to physically go be with that person. Now once you’re there, they have your mental control. And now mental control is mixed with physical control, because it is that mental brainwashing that keeps people from leaving. You have it established in your mind that even when your trafficker, your pimp, is not around that you’re going to do right by them, and you don’t dare disrespect them by even having a thought of leaving. It is so absurd to think that in anyone’s right mind it would be okay to leave this person who’s done so much for you. So, they convinced you and have the same kind of dialogue I’m having with you right now for the listeners to hear. They have that same kind of dialogue. They communicate to that individual who is a victim, who’s fallen for all of this, who’s now deeply immersed in the life whether they know it and can self-identify with it or not. They’re under the control of this person fully. And that is why people do not leave.
TRACI GRIGGS: And that is frightening for any parent that has had a rebellious teenager. You can certainly see how they could be taken in by that. And then the control is really frightening. Kelly, so what are some things that parents can do then to help protect their children from falling prey to this kind of human trafficking?
KELLY LITVAK: Absolutely, parents need to understand this issue. Parents need to remove any kind of thought process that says, “Not my kid. I trained my kids, ‘stranger danger.’” People need to accept that this is a real, very masterful crime that can infiltrate the best of families. And the best defense for parents is to understand this issue and have their children understand this issue. Social media is a major gateway for predators to get access to kids, and parents need to really communicate and have those safeguards in place with their children, so their children understand that just because they’re sitting in their bedroom and they’re on a device that that does not necessarily at all mean that they’re safe. So, parents, guardians, school teachers, counselors, law enforcement, everyone needs to speak the same language and fully understand the access points that predators use to gain that relationship with unsuspecting youth.
And it’s very important to know that you don’t have to be a child to be exploited. A lot of kids we are seeing are getting groomed at 17, and then they’re gone at 18, because the traffickers know that parents and guardians lack that parental control after that child turns 18. So, we see kids being groomed, or young adults being groomed on college campuses. This definitely doesn’t just affect minors. It is definitely widespread and across the young adult community as well.
COURTNEY LITVAK: So, it’s having a conversation with youth and adults and letting them be heard and validating them and meeting them where they’re at, rather than talking down to you because that’s what pushes them away and pushes us, pushes me, when I was that age, right into the arms of these people who just looked so good. It looks so real. It looks so like everything that I need in my life that I’m lacking right now, they have. That is how the life becomes appealing is when the youth feels like they’re not heard when people are not heard. And it’s so important to have that conversation.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure getting a glimpse into your lives, and thank you for all that you both are doing. We’re just about out of time for this week, so if people want to learn more where would you suggest that they go.
KELLY LITVAK: They can visit our website at childproofamerica.org.
TRACI GRIGGS: Well, that website again is childproofamerica.org. And Kelly and Courtney Litvak with Childproof America, thank you so much for joining us today on Family Policy Matters.