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.”