Most At Risk: Population-Based Approaches for Helping Trafficking Victims

Young people on the street.

The Family and Youth Services Bureau’s grantees help young people with all varieties of difficult backgrounds, from domestic violence to homelessness to early pregnancy. But sexual trafficking and exploitation cut across all these experiences. In this issue of NCFY Reports, we look at some of the youth populations who are most prone to trafficking, and what youth and family workers can do to help them recover from that trauma.

Our first article summarizes the research around trafficked youth, which has broadly figured around certain high-risk groups. In short, young people with certain risk factors are more likely to be trafficked. With that in mind, the rest of this issue of NCFY Reports addresses some of those populations that are most at-risk: gay, bisexual and transgender boys; native and rural youth; and teen mothers.

As always, we want to hear about your experiences with this topic. If you’ve treated trafficked youth in your program, reach out on Facebook and Twitter and tell us how you did it. 

Uncovering the Hidden Population of Trafficked Youth

When young people with a history of sexual coercion or manipulation arrive at Covenant House New York, a shelter for homeless youth, they don’t say, “Help I’ve been trafficked.”

They say, “Help me, I’m hungry,” or, “I need a place to stay.”

“If you ask them if they’ve been trafficked, they’re just going to look at you like you're crazy,” says Jayne Bigelsen, Covenant House’s director of anti-human trafficking initiatives.

For this reason, trafficking remains a stubborn issue for social service providers to address. And they’re not the only ones struggling with the hidden nature of the problem: a range of federal partners, including the Family and Youth Services Bureau, have banded together recently (PDF,3.5MB) in an effort to get a handle on just how many young people are bought and sold for sex each year in the United States.

One place to start is by identifying the factors and experiences that may make some youth more vulnerable to trafficking.

“From the research we know that physical abuse, sexual abuse, and other forms of maltreatment are risk factors,” says Jonathan Todres, associate professor of law at Georgia State University College of Law and a member of a National Academies committee that recently studied commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of U.S. minors. “Children who are runaways or thrown out of their house, or [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning] kids who may have been thrown out of their house [because of their sexual orientation] or for other reasons may be at increased risk.”

Others possible risk factors, according to the National Academies report “Confronting Commercial Sexual Exploitation and Sex Trafficking of Minors in the United States,” include abusing substances, being placed in foster care and being involved in the juvenile justice system.

More research is needed though to understand who becomes a victim and how. For example, minority youth may be more likely to be trafficked because they are more often in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. But the National Academies committee did not find enough evidence, yet, to tie race or ethnicity to risk of sexual exploitation.

Patti Simon, a senior program officer at the National Academies and study director for the report, says that future studies of trafficking will need to include all the people who may touch the lives of exploited youth. That includes school staff, victim services organizations (particularly child welfare and runaway and homeless youth programs), businesses, police, health care providers and legal systems.

According to Simon, that comprehensive view may help reveal that a number of seemingly unrelated populations—young people arrested as criminals, others identified as victims or seen by emergency rooms, and still more who are perhaps struggling in school and otherwise flying under adults’ radars–are actually victims of the same trafficking abuse.

One thing is certain for programs that work with vulnerable youth and families, Simon says: “You’re already serving these young people, even if you don’t know it.”

Special Risks: Helping Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Boys

In a 2012 survey of 354 runaway and homeless youth agencies (PDF, 1.8 MB), approximately 40 percent of programs reported that their clients identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and 42 percent of those clients had a history of sexual exploitation. Many LGBT young people run away because their families disapprove of their sexual identity, and such familial conflict is one of the common risk factors for sex trafficking, according to a different report, “Seeking Shelter: The Experiences and Unmet Needs of LGBT Homeless Youth” (PDF, 1.1MB), from the Center for American Progress, an independent nonpartisan educational institute in Washington, DC.

According to “Seeking Shelter” co-author Katie Miller, young men who have sex with men are more likely to have been forced into prostitution than other youth, including their female peers.

Boys often get involved with trafficking if they perceive that a peer’s life has improved from participating in commercial sexual exploitation, says Gordon Vance, program director at the National Runaway Safeline, the Chicago organization that runs the Family and Youth Services Bureau's national communication system for runaway and homeless youth. This is especially true for transgender boys, who tend to feel even more rejected by society than their peers.

While trafficked girls are often controlled in groups by a pimp, boys tend to be “lone wolves,” Vance said. “Boys can sit on the steps of a building and just look at people and nod their head, then walk around the corner and get in the car and that’s it,” Vance said. “They’re much more invisible.”

Continuum of care

The basic needs of homeless youth are similar regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, says Andrew Cray, co-author of “Seeking Shelter.” All youth experiencing homelessness require a safe place to stay where they aren’t afraid of being prosecuted for solicitation or other crimes. They also need access to job training and economic opportunities.

“On top of these things, though, LGBT youth need providers to offer respect for their identities, and to provide space and programming where it is safe for them to be open about who they are,” Cray says.

A few specific ways to help gay, bisexual and transgender boys who may be susceptible to trafficking include:

  • Provide counseling that addresses family rejection, a common factor leading to homelessness. When possible, educate families about the needs of their gay, bisexual and transgender children to help the families gain understanding and acceptance.
  • Promote positive role models, especially those who have handled the coming out process.
  • Provide access to sexual health services, including screening and treatment for sexually transmitted infections. Young men who have sex with men are at increased risk for HIV transmission, Cray says.
  • Be patient. This is a difficult group of young people to help, says Vance. Young people have a hard time simply “quitting” a life of sexual exploitation because it provides money and is often the only stability in their lives. “It’s tough for them to come in and just quit,” Vance says. “Change looks much like drug treatment; people fail the first time. They have to come back and come back.”

The "Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services for Victims of Human Trafficking in the United States" includes plans for federal agencies to identify the prevalence of trafficking among boys, men and LGBT youth and begin to fill the gaps in resources for who have been trafficked. 

Trying for a New Life: Trafficking Victims in Maternity Group Homes

Some arrive with bulging bellies after being kicked out by their pimps. Others are newly pregnant and were picked up by police as they worked on the streets. But however they arrive, young women who have been trafficked are a regular presence at maternity group homes.

Their trauma and its effects can pose obstacles to a program’s effectiveness, and also make these young women feel unworthy of motherhood. But a child can also be very motivating for trafficking victims, provided that treatment helps them overcome their emotional trauma.

“The baby makes them want to do better,” says Raquelle McGriff, program manager for Through the Storm Outreach Ministries in Kingstree, SC. “We try to redirect [their anxiety], reassure them that it’s a fresh start. The bad experiences don’t have to repeat themselves.”

Identifying Victims

Jennifer Stracick, executive director of Alpha House of Pinellas County, a maternity group home in St. Petersburg, FL, says that in 2013, nearly 40% of her residents had endured trafficking. But few of them knew the experience by that term.

“Sometimes they call it ‘being sexually abused,’ and once you dig in you discover exactly what’s been happening,” says Crystal France, director of Every Woman’s Place in Muskegon, MI, whose staff is trained to pick up on signals during intake interviews. “Or maybe they say they were ‘around prostitution.’”

At Alpha House, Jennifer Stracick says that trafficking victims sometimes act out sexually. They may have loud, overtly sexual conversations on the phone within earshot of other residents, or talk in detail about their sexual behavior at group therapy meetings. “It’s frustrating because you’re dealing with an environment full of women and babies,” says Stracick. “People in the house don’t want to deal with that” as they adapt to young motherhood.

Rethinking Family

In general, these behaviors stem from the fact that trafficking can skew a victim’s view of sexuality and intimacy. Every Woman’s Place serves only pregnant girls who have been homeless, but even relative to that population, France says that “the whole idea of family and love and relationships is distorted” among the formerly trafficked clients. The program’s therapy services focus on “reconfirming that [their exploitation] wasn’t their fault,” says France. “They blame themselves.”

Raquelle McGriff recalls one Through The Storm client who was particularly worried about being a good mother. “She kept saying, ‘Not every parent is good,’ and I realized she was trying to tell me that her own mother had facilitated her trafficking.” That’s why McGriff and her colleagues focus on helping trafficking victims rebuild a sense of trust with a core group of people in their life.

When appropriate, they work to reconnect clients to their baby’s father. But in the case of trafficking victims, who very often either became pregnant by their abuser or can’t pinpoint him altogether, it can be hard. “Often they don’t trust the father, and push them away so they can’t hurt the child,” McGriff says.

Luckily, the group setting of a maternity home can help young victims feel they have a family again. When someone shares a traumatic experience in a group therapy meeting, other girls might relate, or be inspired by their friend’s commitment to their baby. Best of all, they can gain confidence in their ability to mother and support someone else in a difficult time.

“It can be therapeutic to console or help each other,” says McGriff. “It shows them that they do have an instinct to love.”

Ending Trafficking Among Native Youth: Examining the Obstacles and What Works

A young Native woman left her reservation to find work, only to be approached by a pimp who found her look “exotic.” Another teen says the “aunties” she considered family coached her to become a prostitute.

Tiffany Morris has heard countless stories like these while doing gang outreach at the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland, Oregon. Youth trafficking impacts people of all ages and demographics, she says, but Native teens are especially vulnerable because of the prevalence of sexual abuse in their communities.

“Sex abuse and rape against Native women and girls is higher than in the general population, and it’s known that when girls or women have been sexually abused or raped, it’s easier for them to be picked up into a life of trafficking,” Morris says. Native communities “are beginning to open up about the violence against women on and off the reservations,” she adds, “but there’s still a lot of fear and a lot of judgment, so they don’t always talk about it.”

Weighing the Impact of Historical Trauma

Family and youth workers hoping to end the sexual exploitation of Native youth must first understand the cultural factors behind the problem, says Suzanne Koepplinger, executive director of Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center.

In 2011, MIWRC contributed to a report (2,321KB, PDF) on prostitution and trafficking among Native women in Minnesota—the first to focus on the Native community. The report examined the impact of historical trauma on the current mental, emotional and financial health of Native populations. For example, ongoing attempts to occupy Native land or remove Native children from their homes, the report says, have been linked to high rates of substance abuse, depression and suicide. Such trauma can also manifest itself in symptoms like high anxiety and poor coping skills, Koepplinger says, potentially leading to increased violence in the home.

These factors, in turn, may compel youth to run away or join a gang—two circumstances that increase their odds of sexual exploitation. Some Native youth embrace gangs because they emphasize identity and culture similar to tribal life, Morris says, only to be exploited by their new “family.”

“Maybe there’s just one abuser within that gang, but they’re all brothers. [If you leave], you don’t just hide from one individual. You have to hide from everybody.”

Finding What Works

So how do family and youth workers help Native youth avoid trafficking, or escape an exploitative situation?

  • Screen for trafficking during the intake process: Simply adding questions to your intake form isn’t enough, Koepplinger says, particularly when the words used don’t resonate. Instead of asking youth if they’ve ever been trafficked, for example, agencies can ask more nuanced questions like if they’ve ever traded sex for food, or whether they know someone working as a pimp.
  • Educate staff on Native issues: Each tribe’s culture can be very different, so it’s important to learn about the tribes near your area. Native-centric organizations like NAYA can also provide tips and resources for improving staff’s cultural competence.
  • Give voice to survivors: At MIWRC, survivors are invited to help lead initiatives to share their success stories and provide mentorship to struggling youth.
  • Understand that cycles take time to break: Family and youth workers cannot force a young person to leave a dangerous environment, Koepplinger says, but they can consistently offer to be there for youth when the time is right. “Pimp control is very deep, and it’s an emotional bond. You can’t break that bond. You have to replace it.”