Child sex trafficking organizations set the record straight on QAnon conspiracy theories

"Over 800,000 kids go missing in the U.S. every year! Child sex trafficking is the REAL pandemic. #SaveTheChildren #SaveOurChildren #ChildLivesMatter #Pedogate #Pedowood"

If you've been on social media in the past month or two, you've likely seen memes or posts to this effect. And if you're a person with a conscience, it likely caught your eye. Children being trafficked for sex—that's horrible!

Yes, it is. It's absolutely horrible. Child sex trafficking is basically the worst thing human beings can do, no question. But what do those #Pedogate and #Pedowood hashtags mean?

Yes, those. Unfortunately, they point directly to a QAnon-perpetuated conspiracy theory in which the world is being controlled by an elite global cabal of pedophilic Hollywood celebrities and high-level politicians (including Tom Hanks, Oprah, Hillary Clinton, and more) who secretly traffick, abuse, and torture children so they can harvest a fear-induced hormone in their blood to make adrenocrhome, which they consume to keep them young and/or imbibe during their drug-crazed Satanic rituals.

What?! That's crazy.

Yes, it is. It's absolutely crazy. But there are a baffling number of people who believe it, including people who will likely soon be serving in Congress. Many of these people are sharing the #SaveOurChildren and #ChildLivesMatter hashtags right along with #Pedowood and #Pedogate. They conflate this huge number of missing kids with the issue of child sex trafficking, and then point to the celebrity/politician cabal conspiracy theory in the same breath, as if it's all the same thing.

It is not.


The reality is that child sex trafficking is a multi-billion dollar, heinous, disgusting, global industry—but it's not new. It's not a sudden and massive crisis that "the media" is ignoring or that governments and NGOs aren't addressing. Unfortunately, QAnon believers have pushed a lot of misinformation and misleading information into the awareness surrounding this issue that needs to be corrected.

To get to the heart of what child sex trafficking really looks like—and to be thorough in the debunking of QAnon's child trafficking theories—we spoke with organizations whose work centers around stopping trafficking and protecting missing and exploited children.

The QAnon Misinformation

A common question people who have been sucked in by the QAnon world ask is: How do you know it's not true if it's never been investigated?

Some things are simply too ridiculous to be entertained, which honestly should be the case with the QAnon cabal theory. But since it's somehow slipped into the mainstream, it has to be addressed head on.

So I swallowed my pride and directly asked anti-trafficking organizations—the people who specialize in this subject and are intimately involved in investigations—whether or not there was any truth to the theory. It was humiliating, frankly, but I straight up asked them: "It's a known fact that child abusers often hide in plain sight and that high-profile people can be abusers. Based on your work, have you seen any evidence that there is a global cabal of pedophile elites who traffick children in a coordinated underground effort to harvest adrenochrome?"

Across the board, the answer was "No."

I also asked this question: "Pedophiles and traffickers sometimes use coded symbols and code words in their communications with one another. Is there any official documentation that the words 'pizza' or 'hot dog' or 'sauce' have been used for such a purpose? (Or more directly, are the Wikileaks emails evidence of child sex trafficking?)"

Again, the answer was no. Of course.

(For those new to Conspiracyland, the code words question came from the claim QAnon folks make that the FBI has a list of code words and symbols that support the Pizzagate theory, which posits that Hillary Clinton and associates were discussing their dastardly pedophile deeds in code words—pizza, sauce, etc.—via emails released by Wikileaks. The FBI has documented known pedophile symbols, but none of the supposed code words in the Wikileaks emails are listed among them And the Washington D.C. police have called Pizzagate "a fictitious online conspiracy theory.")

Erin Williamson, VP of Global Programs for Love146—an organization that has been working with sex trafficking prevention and survivor care for 17 years—says that conspiracy theories like this just makes more work for the people trying to do the work of educating the public.

"If somebody comes to know trafficking and has no preconceived notions of what trafficking is, you're starting with a blank slate," she says. "You can build from zero. But if someone's coming to the trafficking movement or approaching this issue with preconceived incorrect information, then first you have to get them to the point where they realize all of the information that they've learned thus far is inaccurate before you can start building the accurate information. And it just is going to take so much longer to get people to a point where they actually understand what this accurately looks like."

A national organization that asked to remain anonymous (understandable, considering how my own inbox fills with people accusing me of being a pedophile each time I write about how QAnon is bunk) told Upworthy, "Questions like this distract from the realities of how sex trafficking actually occurs. Offenders do often communicate in code but we haven't seen any such official documentation and don't consider the Wikileaks emails credible. Unfounded conspiracy theories minimize, distract and draw valuable resources away from the tireless work being done by child protection advocates on the ground."

The Polaris Project, which runs the National Trafficking Hotline, offered an example of how resources get usurped by these theories. Last month, a rumor started circulating in the QAnon sphere that the Wayfair website was being used to traffick children because someone spotted an strangely expensive cabinet with a female name.

"The Wayfair theory resulted in online harassment and privacy intrusions of people mistakenly believed to be victims, as well as broad sharing of online sexual abuse material of actual victims who have not been connected in any way to Wayfair," Polaris told Upworthy. "This harm is real for survivors who want to maintain their privacy, victims who are being re-exploited by broader distribution of their abuse materials, or bystanders whose lives can be overwhelmed by the actions of potentially well-meaning online communities."

In addition, Polaris adds, "Conspiracies distract from the more disturbing but simple realities of how sex trafficking actually works, and how we can prevent it."

But isn't awareness about child sex trafficking a good thing, even if it's not all factual?

Love146's Erin Williamson says no.

"In the short term, it might make people aware that there is an issue of child trafficking that exists," she says."But if that doesn't lead to somebody actually engaging with the issue and taking effort to join the movement to actually effectively eradicate the issue, then no. It's harmful. It's just a bunch of white noise that's sucking up resources."

"The question really is how many of the people are going to, as a result of this, actually have enough concern about child trafficking that they do more research, effectively realize what the issue is about, and then consistently or actively engage in addressing it," she adds. "And I don't think we fully know the percentage. My concern is that that percentage will be pretty low."

Perpetuating these kooky cabal theories does more to hurt the child sex trafficking cause than to help it.

Those Missing Kids Numbers

But what about all those missing children then?

Every organization I spoke to pointed out that there are no hard and fast numbers because there's no way to know exactly how many kids are being trafficked or exploited beyond what gets reported. We know that a lot of exploitation doesn't get reported, but most kids who go missing do get reported somewhere.

Two organizations pointed me to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) for missing children statistics. The NCMEC states, "According to the FBI, in 2019 there were 421,394 NCIC entries for missing children. In 2018, the total number of missing children entries into NCIC was 424,066." They clarify that this number represents individual reports of missing children, not the number of missing children themselves. If a child runs away multiple times in a year, each instance is counted separately and included in the yearly total, so the total number of missing children is likely less than those total numbers.

That's a lot of children; however, the vast majority of missing kids make it back home pretty quickly. Think of kids who run away to a friend's house and the parents can't find them, kids who get lost temporarily, or kids who get taken or not returned by a parent in a custody dispute.

The kids who don't return home and who are at risk of exploitation are where NCMEC comes in. In 2019, they assisted law enforcement and families with more than 29,000 cases. Less than one percent of those were non-family abductions, so the idea that loads of kids are just being snatched out of nowhere and sold for sex is totally inaccurate. In addition, NCMEC reports that 91 percent of those cases (around 26,300) were endangered runaways, and of those kids, 1 in 6 were likely victims of child sex trafficking. One is too many, of course, and these numbers are significant. But they're nowhere near 800,000.

Statistics come in various forms, of course. The Polaris Project, which runs the National Trafficking Hotline, tells Upworthy, " In 2019, the National Human Trafficking Hotline reported 2,582 underaged individuals involved in trafficking situations (all types)." However, they note, "It is incredibly important to note that these figures cannot be construed as prevalence."

Again, one child is too many, and these statistics only represent a fraction of the problem. Sharing these numbers is not meant to downplay the issue at all, but rather to explain that there's no real basis for the idea that 800,000 kids go missing and get sucked into child sex trafficking each year in the U.S.

So where did that number come from? There were some articles in the early 2000's that cited numbers close around 800,000. But the most recent statistics are shared above.

Numbers are always a bit fuzzy. What we do know is that children are being trafficked and exploited. Far too many, far too often.

What Child Sex Trafficking Really Looks Like

Child sex trafficking is a complex industry. Sometimes it looks like children being physically transported place to place and being bought and sold for sex. Sometimes it's kids being used to create child pornography. Sometimes it's a drug-addicted parent renting out their children to get money for their addiction. Sometimes it's teens recruiting other teens to engage in sex or create sexual images for money.

Love146's Williamson explained that trafficking can look very different in different parts of the world.

"We run a program in the Philippines, and most of our children come into that program under 10," says Williamson.. "We've accepted kids under the age of one into that program. In those situations, it's really familial a lot of times, and a lot of what is happening is happening over webcams. You'll also see reports of labor trafficking happening in other countries at very young ages.

"What we see in the United States and what we're working with is different. We're not seeing as many under 10 year olds trafficked. I'm not saying it doesn't happen—it does. But more of what we're seeing are adolescents. Preteen and teenagers who are being groomed and recruited, and while some is familial, a lot is not familial."

Williamson explains that the term "runaway" is a bit of a misnomer because some runaways are teens who get pulled away from home by traffickers in sneaky ways.

"Part of what traffickers do is they recruit and groom," she says. "They engage in a relationship for the purposes of exploiting this kid for trafficking. So it can appear that a kid is running away, or choosing to leave their house willingly, but it's actually an intentionality on the part of the traffickers to make it appear that way...to make it appear that way to law enforcement, to the parents, and to the child themselves. So the child says things like, 'I chose to go, I chose to meet up with so and so who I met online, or to meet up with so and so who I met in the park.' So again, even when we talk about the term runaway…they're really being groomed and recruited away from their home."

One common theme among the organizations I communicated with is that there are well-known conditions that greatly increase a child's chances of being trafficked.

Polaris Project says:

"Traffickers recognize and take advantage of people who are vulnerable in certain ways. There are several factors that may make a child vulnerable to sex trafficking including having an unstable living situation, having a history of domestic or sexual abuse, being frequent runaways, being involved in the juvenile justice or foster care systems, experiencing poverty or financial need, and/or dealing with addiction. While anyone can be trafficked, just as anyone can become a victim of any crime, due to factors such as historical oppression, discrimination, and generational trauma, LGBTQ+ youth and youth of color are more likely to be trafficked."

The anonymous organization also explained that certain conditions make kids more vulnerable. "Certain kids who are homeless or runaways, belong to certain minority groups, and who have contact with the child welfare system are particularly vulnerable to this type of exploitation."

Polaris also points out, "In the case of child sex trafficking in particular, the vast majority of victims know their traffickers and trust them. They may be professional traffickers who carefully groom young people on line and lure them into trafficking situations. They may well also be their parents, or other family members or trusted friends."

What We Can Do About it

Learning about the realities of child sex trafficking is the first step. The issue is complex and multi-faceted, but just because it's not simple or easy to solve doesn't mean there's nothing we can do.

One active thing we can do is what trafficking looks like.

"Trafficking is rarely perpetrated by a total stranger who kidnaps children," says Polaris Project. "What we frequently see through the Trafficking Hotline are stories of people being trafficked by intimate partners, family members, and others that they know and may even love and trust."

We can also make sure kids we are in contact with know that we are safe people they can go to if they are in an unsafe situation.

"When we talk to kids, it is always the little things that made the difference," says Love 146's Williamson. "It is always the neighbor who asked how they were doing, who then they realized was a safe person, that they could eventually talk to about what was happening to them in their house. It is always the teacher who they would curse out who would say 'I'm still here for you whenever you need something.' It is the little things that make a difference in a child's life."

Williamson also points out that the systemic issues we debate over in our society also impact child sex trafficking, and addressing those issues will help reduce the vulnerabilities that lead to exploitation.

"For most of us who have been working in this field long enough, there's now a general recognition that we're not going to arrest and prosecute our way out of this issue," she says, "We've tried that. That isn't happening. We need to go upstream. We need to deal with all of the things that make people vulnerable—the inequalities, the racism, the sexism, the homophobia. We need to address all of these issues that have all sorts of consequences, of which trafficking is one of them. It takes a while to get somebody to understand how this is all interrelated.

So when I hear somebody say, 'Black Lives Matter? What about children's lives? There's been a couple of quotes like that. 'Why are we marching for Black Lives Matter? Where's the outcry for trafficked children?' and comparing those two. First of all, this is not a dichotomy—we should be addressing all of this. And my thing is when you look at the statistics, especially here in the United States, trafficking is disproportionately affecting children of color. And so racism is at the heart of both of these issues, when you're talking about the disproportionality of violence against people of color. So it's not an either/or. It's actually a yes/and. Which is why we have to go upstream and start addressing some of these systemic issues."

To learn more about the real issue of child sex trafficking, check out these organizations' websites:

Polaris Project

Love146

The Exodus Road

ECPAT-USA

Child Rescue Coalition

Thorn

Operation Underground Railroad

International Justice Mission

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Researchers at Harvard University have studied the connection between spanking and kids' brain development for the first time, and their findings echo what studies have indicated for years: Spanking isn't good for children.

Comments on this article will no doubt be filled with people who a) say they were spanked and "turned out fine" or b) say that the reason kids are [fill in the blank with some societal ill] these days are because they aren't spanked. However, a growing body of research points to spanking creating more problems than it solves.

"We know that children whose families use corporal punishment are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, behavior problems, and other mental health problems, but many people don't think about spanking as a form of violence," said Katie A. McLaughlin, director of the Stress & Development Lab in the Department of Psychology, and the senior researcher on the study which was published Friday in the journal Child Development. "In this study, we wanted to examine whether there was an impact of spanking at a neurobiological level, in terms of how the brain is developing."

You can read the entire study here, but the gist is that kids' brain activity was measured using an MRI machine as they reacted to photos of actors displaying "fearful" and "neutral" faces. What researchers found was that kids who had been spanked had similar brain neural responses to fearful faces as kids who had been abused.

"There were no regions of the brain where activation to fearful relative to neutral faces differed between children who were abused and children who were spanked," the authors wrote in a statement.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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