So, the world is … kind of messed up right now. The pandemic, the racism, the political divisiveness, climate change. We’re bombarded by all this, and more, in our news feeds every day. But something a lot of us don’t think or talk about regularly is human trafficking. It’s dark and ugly and scary, and frankly, hard to even fathom as something that happens. Yet it does, every single day.

There is no national program that addresses sex trafficking. — Saba Saddiqi, MD, Intouch Proto Medical Director

In 2019, 11,500 human trafficking cases were reported in the United States; around two-thirds of those reports (8,248 ) were for sex trafficking. Experts say many more cases go unreported. And if you’re thinking that sex trafficking only happens to adults or women or people of certain backgrounds or nationalities, think again. Any person of any age can be a victim, but children – girls and boys – are particularly vulnerable. Close to “home,” (i.e., Intouch Group’s headquarters, that is) a high school coach in Topeka, Kansas was charged with two counts of producing child pornography and one count of possessing child pornography just last September. Sadly, a child trafficker can be anyone, anywhere.

To help take on this extremely important public health issue, Intouch medical director Saba Siddiqi, MD, MBA, Intouch senior vice president of medical Joe Wellington, MD, and chief creative officer Susan Perlbachs — along with Ryan Flurry, a physician and principal of career education campuses for the Shawnee Mission school district — recently presented an awareness-building plan to the Kansas Rotary Club of Community Action Against Human Trafficking (CAAHT).

I’ve been asked, “Is trafficking really a public health issue?” It absolutely is. And it’s not just me saying so. The Administration for Children and Families, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, considers it a public health concern affecting entire communities. Victims endure physical and mental abuse resulting in physical, sexual, and psychological trauma. — Susan Perlbachs, Intouch Group Chief Creative Officer

In short, the plan is a competition called “Students Stopping Traffic,” and the goal is to inspire Kansas City-area high schoolers to create a compelling awareness campaign or idea to combat the trafficking and targeting of their peers. Kids need, say Perlbachs and Saddiqi, to know that exploitation and trafficking happen in plain sight, and that predatory behavior often relies on manipulation – by gaining trust and information over time and fulfilling needs like food, shelter, or “friendship” — rather than force. And who better to help get that message out than the people kids often trust most: their peers.

The competition, sponsored by Intouch, along with Kansas Rotary Clubs, education company Lumen Touch, and anti-trafficking groups, will launch in late May 2021. Students will be invited to work on their own or in teams over the summer to come up with ideas to stop child trafficking in their own neighborhoods and cities. There’ll be three cash prizes awarded to the first-, second-, and third-place winners — each given to the students’ schools — and students who submit the first-place selection will then work with Intouch to produce an idea — an ad campaign, social campaign, website, or any format the kids come up with.

Stay tuned for more about the competition and the winning idea. If you want to learn more about the contest and Intouch’s involvement, reach out to Joe Wellington, Saba Siddiqi, and  Susan Perlbachs.