The USVI’s sex trafficking problem

Cacki Barrett has been helping victims of sex trafficking in the U.S. Virgin Islands for the past five years. 

She said the problem is unlike anything she’s ever seen. 

“Our shores are so accessible. You know, all’s you need is put somebody in a little dingy, run them up onto shore out, the boat they get and they’re here,” Barrett said.

With dozens of secluded coves and beaches, Barrett said the USVI has become a hot spot for recruiters looking for the next child to lure in. 

Many of the victims she said come from the Dominican Republic. 

Barrett added the recruiters prey on the vulnerable particularly, kids. 

“Children. Children is a different story. They are so vulnerable to praise and attention and someone treating them like their grown and they trust easily and the typical situation is the trafficker grooms people, they groom children.” 

This week, charges of sex trafficking were placed on VI resident, billionaire Jeffrey Epstein. Prosecutors said he was exploiting a network of girls. Barrett said his type is far too common. 

“Jeffrey Epstein and with his alleged acts and other people who sexually assault children it is about power and it is about control over someone else.” 

The problem of sex trafficking, Barrett said, goes deeper than anyone thinks. 

She said it’s not like what you see in the movies where the child gets grabbed off the road in a white van and taken away. 

It happens in places like Red Hook where recruiters wait at boat docks for their next investment. 

She warns that it can also happen right in your own home. 

“I have students they’re playing these online video games where they’re playing with people from all over the world and they get popups ‘hi what are you doing how are you’ and they start talking back to these people. And traffickers are really good at grooming. They are very, very good at manipulating.” 

That’s where she wants parents to heed the warning signs or come for advice at the Family Resource Center where Barrett works. 

She also gives talks at schools around St. Thomas educating students so they become more aware to the world around them. 

The tips could save a childs life. 

“They’re trafficking children as young as two, three for sex. There is trafficking for labor there is trafficking for body parts but the sex trafficking in children is disturbing.” 

Barrett said if you think someone is being held against their will call local police. 

She said keep an eye out for things that seem out of place, like a children with multiple cell phones, or one that never seems to be in school or has a lot of money all of a sudden. 

If you see a change in your own home with your child here are things Barrlett said to look out for. 

“If there is ever a drastic change in your childs behaviour whether it be school, sleeping, eating emotional behaviour, any drastic change in a childs behaviour is going to tell you something is going on and you need to ask.” 

Barrlett said it is on us to look out for our young people and to keep our communities safe against this ever growing problem. 

The Family Resource Center in St. Thomas offers free counselling, shelter, all kinds of services for victims of violent crimes, for Children and adults and their families.


Signs your child is being groomed:

  1. Targeting a victim
    a. Traffickers target victims who have some noticeable vulnerability:
    emotional neediness, low self-esteem, or economic stress.
    Social media and apps with private messaging features make it easier
    and faster for traffickers to identify their victims.
  2. Gaining trust and information
    a. Gathering information about the victim is key. This can be done
    through casual conversations with the victim or with parents or
    friends. Many victims are first groomed and exploited by a family
    member. Traffickers skilled at grooming often mix well with other
    adults, gaining a trusted position as an honorary “family member” if
    they aren’t already a member of the victim’s family.
  3. Filling a need
    a. The information gained allows the trafficker to fill a need in the
    victim’s life, making the victim dependant on them in some way:
    buying gifts, being a friend, beginning a love relationship, or buying
    soft drugs and alcohol. This is why many times a trafficker may look
    like a “boyfriend” to unsuspecting friends and family.
  4. Isolation
    a. The trafficker creates times to be alone with the victim. The trafficker
    will also begin to have a major role in the victim’s life and attempt to
    distance the victim from friends and family. In isolation, the trafficker
    has more control over the messages the victim hears and is better
    able to manipulate them.
  5. Abuse begins
    a. The trafficker begins claiming that a service must be repaid whether
    money spent on cigarettes or drugs, car rides or mobile phones. It
    may even begin with requests for illicit images (sexting) that are then
    used to threaten the victim. In most cases, the trafficker demands
    sex as payment for such services.
  6. Maintain Control
    a. In many cases, the trafficker maintains control of the victim through
    threats, violence, fear, or blackmail. Many victims show loyalty to their traffickers even after they’ve been recovered because of the insidious nature of the manipulation and the trauma bonds that are formed.

All of this means that teens are more vulnerable to flattery, attention, affection, and gifts as means of coercion, especially if there is not a strong safe attachment at home.

Trauma Bonds:

Survivors often talk about how sweet or loving their abuser is, how they were their “best friend.” The trafficker often provided the basic relationships aspects of caregiving providing protection, support and care. This is how we form attachments to significant people in our lives. When these things happen, a chemical called “oxytocin” is released in our brains. This chemical makes us feel safe, loved, care for and protected. However, when the caregiver is also the one who is the abuser, we tend to start out rationalizing their abusive behavior which only serves to strengthen the bond. On top of that often times, the abuser puts the blame for the abuse on the victim, “if only you had not…”, or “You owe me money and if…”. What is so dangerous about these trauma bonds if the negative long term impact on social, emotional and cognitive development.