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Human traffickers groom Genesee County students on social media, sheriff says

(WJRT)
Published: Feb. 12, 2020 at 4:16 PM EST
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(2/12/2020) - Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson said 5 to 10 mid-Michigan students became the victims of online grooming over this past week.

He explained multiple perpetrators ages 22 to 59-years-old contacted both middle and high school students through social media.

The incidents are connected to two different Genesee County schools. The Sheriff is not naming them at this time.

But, he said, one case of grooming started on a school-issued Chromebook; and, that led to the student and groomer meeting up in person.

"It's all over the state, it's all over the country and the message we're giving is not just about the story, it's about what you need to have in your own life -- and that is barriers, boundaries, you need to have conversations, you need to have a topic of discussion," Sheriff Swanson said.

The Genesee County Sheriff's Office is on the frontlines of the fight against human trafficking with community partner, Voices for Children in Flint.

The organization said the first things parents need to do to keep their kids safe is acknowledge there's a problem.

Voices for Children sees an uptick in online grooming cases every year. Executive Director Claudnyse Holloman said it's because nearly every kid has a cellphone.

The Center agreed with the Sheriff that parents need to set boundaries for kids; because, Holloman said, what may seem like an innocent online conversation can lead to much more.

"Online grooming leads to sexual assault, it can lead to sex abuse, it can lead to sexploitation, where the kids are part of child pornography," she explained. "It can also lead to human trafficking. There are so many different ways that these people on the other side are able to blackmail the kids into doing things."

Every month, Holloman said the Center helps at least 1 or 2 kids who have been victimized from an online connection.

"If anything, parents just really need to have conversations regularly with their children so that their kids trust them and they're able to talk to them," she said.

Holloman said parents need to know exactly what their kids are doing online and on apps.

"It's really important for parents to not allow phones in the bedroom, make sure that they have access to their kids phones as well as to their laptops. If it's a school laptop, you still need to know what's going on, what they're looking at. Look at their history," she said.

And when it comes to apps, Holloman explained they've seen Snapchat and Instagram are typically the platforms kids are contacted through.

"If you don't understand Snapchat, you need to get a Snapchat and you need to figure it out," she said. "There are all kinds of online tools, we'll teach you how to do it, law enforcement will teach you how to do it, but you can go YouTube. YouTube will give you a guide to anything you want."

Holloman adds she's grateful law enforcement is talking about this difficult topic; because, she said, perpetrators tend to tell the kids police won't believe them if they speak up.

So she said their actions show kids they will.

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