GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Jen Amo had recently graduated college and was working in the dental field when she first heard about the number of human trafficking cases in the U.S. She couldn’t believe hundreds of thousands of people in this country became victims of the practice every year, so she uprooted her career and plans, and focused on preventing young people from becoming victims.
“I just had to dive in deep. I reached out to (the) FBI (and) Homeland Security. I talked to those of my friends that worked in jails and there were traffickers in there. I dug into social work. I dug into all the different aspects to learn about this crime and how it works. And then I basically sat down and was like, ‘If this was my family, what would I want them to know about this crime to stay safe?’ And that’s where it started,” Amo explained.
She used the information she gathered to create a variety of presentations that are the foundation of Warning Lights, a nonprofit human trafficking prevention organization. It has become part of more than a dozen schools’ curricula in West Michigan. For example, it’s part of Health and P.E. at Jenison High School, Current Events at Greenville Schools, and Sociology at Forest Hills Eastern High School. Amo also has a special presentation called “Warning Lights, Kids” for younger students in elementary school, which is focused more on personal safety.
Amo says in her presentation to high schoolers that “predators are nice until they’re not,” and they use relationships to exploit young people in a crime no one sees coming. She gives students an idea of what the “lures” look like so they don’t fall for the traps.
Before the pandemic, Amo said most of her cases came from the streets, where the predators used in-person interactions to gain trust and then exploit a victim. Post-pandemic, she said more than 90% of her cases are from social media, gaming apps, chat apps or other online sources.
“Your parents don’t know because they’re not knocking on your door. They’re not coming over for dinner, it’s all behind a screen,” she said.
Because of the anonymous nature of the communication, Amo said it makes it even easier for teens to divulge their personal information and secrets. Oftentimes, predators will befriend their victim’s acquaintances too and threaten to divulge secrets to those friends or classmates.
“We have so many lures that we go over in the curriculum because one becomes popular, then after law enforcement start to catch on, (predators) just move on to a different one … but predators will ask a lot of questions and act like they care. They listen. They agree with everything they’re saying … then, when that predator flips and says, ‘Hey, I need you to do something, and if you don’t, I’m going to tell your friends the secret you’ve shared with me.’ What puts the pressure huge on these kids,” Amo said.
The goal of Warning Lights is to build up confidence so no teenager feels like they have no choice but to comply with coercion. Amo said the number one sign of a problem is isolation.
“The most popular one I see is where that predator is making the victim feel like they’re the only ones that they can connect with. So we see them going to their room and spending time alone because they’re on a device, not wanting to go out with friends because it’s hard to keep talking with this person when I’m out with my friends,” she said.
One common misconception about human trafficking is that it mostly involves kidnapping. Amo said that is usually not the case, and in fact, many victims are still living at home, being trafficked under their parents’ noses.
“They’re in their beds every single night. I had one family where the parents were arguing with me because their daughter had reached out to me, and they were arguing with me that ‘you’re making this up. This is not true. There’s no way, she’s here with us. We know her.’ But she had met someone online, and she would sneak out in the night to meet them down the road. They would take her to a house, force her into having sex with multiple people, and then drive her back to her house, and she’d sneak back in and be in that bed when she woke up the next morning. She willingly went with them. Right? But she felt like she was forced into it. And that’s where the key of human trafficking comes (in). You’re forced, it’s through force, fraud or coercion, right? So forced, tricked or bribed into doing it. That’s what makes it really tricky,” she explained.
Young people who have listened to Amo’s presentation often contact her afterward if they find themselves in trouble, and she acts as a liaison between them, their parents and law enforcement. She recently helped a young man who was tricked into sending sensitive pictures to someone he thought was his age but turned out to be a much older woman.
“He sent money. When we have money transmission, we have to get law enforcement involved. We’re talking multiple crimes here now. So that’s the situation when sometimes we do have to get law enforcement involved,” Amo said.
It takes donations to keep the program going, and Amo will host a fundraising event Thursday evening at Craig’s Cruisers in Wyoming to celebrate 10 years of Human Trafficking prevention. Tickets are $36 per person, and $5 from each ticket will go to Warning Lights. The event will also feature a silent auction and other fundraising opportunities.
Contact Jen Amo for information on how to schedule a presentation at a school or community event.