Children forced into prostitution by their parents to fund drug addiction and the exploitation of boys are types of child sex trafficking which are rarely recognized in the United States, said a state judge.
Judge John Romero Jr., a U.S. judge and leading child trafficking expert, said there is a major misconception among Americans that boys and girls sold into prostitution are brought in from poorer countries.
But all too often it is U.S.-born children who are trafficked and sold online, and identifying these victims is key to combating the widespread crime.
"We've been in the mindset that this only happens to foreign kids, that it's not the girl next door, it couldn't possibly be my niece or my granddaughter," Romero told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
"I am of the mind anecdotally that most folks think that it couldn't possibly be happening here, that it happens to everyone else but not to our kids," said Romero, who serves as a judge in the children's court division in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
There is no official estimate of the total number of human trafficking victims in the United States.
Last year, 7,572 trafficking cases were reported to the country's National Human Trafficking Hotline.
More than 50 percent of the 5,550 people who were sex trafficked in 2016 were below 18 when targeted, according to Polaris, a charity which runs the hotline.
But experts say the real figure of trafficked children and adults in the United States is in the hundreds of thousands.
The United Nations children's agency estimates 1.8 million children are trafficked into the global sex trade every year.
Children who have run away from home or are homeless, Native Americans and Alaska Natives, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex youth are most vulnerable, said Romero.
According to the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in six of the 18,500 runaways in 2016 were likely sex trafficking victims, most of them in the care of social services or foster parents when they went missing.
Perpetrators of child sex trafficking also include family members, a crime many Americans ignore, Romero said.
"Parents who in exchange for drugs or for money will sell their kids and that's abhorrent to most of us .. that's one of the atrocities that goes on under our noses every day and we fail to acknowledge that," he said.
In the United States and worldwide, the sexual exploitation of boys is overlooked and grossly underreported, Romero said.
He said that boys are often thought to be willing participants or be the traffickers themselves.
Identifying male victims of sex trafficking is also a challenge because boys are often reluctant to speak up.
"Our culture in the United States and various cultures say that real men don't admit weaknesses," Romero said.
ONLINE SEX TRADE
Increasingly children are being recruited, advertised and exploited online, along with social media and apps, Romero said.
Often people responding to online adverts will not communicate with the trafficker but the victim instead, making it difficult for perpetrators to be identified, Romero said.
Romero, who works as an advisor on the National Advisory Committee on the Sex Trafficking of Children, said care for child trafficking survivors needs to focus more on helping them overcome trauma and should be based on their recommendations.
"We need to listen to their voices," Romero said.