How Can Young People’s Experiences with Police Inform Sex Trafficking Prevention and Intervention?

Police officer interogating people at an emergency scene.

Police and Domestic Sex Trafficking of Youth: What Teens Tell Us That Can Aid Prevention and Interdiction” (abstract). Linda Williams. Journal of Crime and Justice, Vol. 38, No. 3 (2015).

What it’s about: Using semi-structured, open-ended interviews, author Linda Williams investigated the experiences of youth who were victims of or at risk for domestic sex trafficking, specifically looking at police interactions. She interviewed 61 youth between the ages of 14 and 19 about their police interactions; 28 were domestic sex trafficking victims and 33 were runaway youth at risk for victimization. Participants were racially and ethnically diverse; 29 identified as African American, 20 as Caucasian, 11 as Hispanic/Latina/Latino, and 1 as Asian American. Interviews took place in the Boston metropolitan area and in the District of Columbia.

Why read it: Youth who experience homelessness are at increased risk for commercial sexual exploitation. Police have “the greatest opportunity to bridge the gap between resources that exist and the youth who need these services” according to Williams.  This study pinpointed areas where justice, child welfare, and service organizations can coordinate to positively impact police practices and intervene with at-risk youth.

Biggest takeaways from the research: The author identified three key themes from the research.

1. The experiences that put teens at risk for trafficking may also lead to homelessness and avoidance of police. Young people often experienced extremes in family dissolution, violence, and dysfunction, and many of the youth ran away, were pushed out, or were removed from home. Williams argues that by understanding these experiences, police encounters may be reframed to more effectively support youth. Many youth also mistrust adults, and once on the streets, hide from or avoid detection by police.

2. Police decision-making in response to reports of family violence may increase young people’s risk for domestic sex trafficking. Some of the young people shared that after being removed or forced out of a violent home, they ran away or moved into unstable or risky living situations. Some youth also ran away to escape the violence because even after police intervened, it did not cease.

3. Police interactions with at-risk youth may assist entry into sex trafficking or may be missed opportunities to help sexually-exploited youth. When police interact with youth on the streets, the author writes that often “victims of domestic sex trafficking are encountered, but are missed, skipped, or blamed.” Participants shared that police did not provide any information about alternatives or pathways to get help.

Williams highlights opportunities for training law enforcement to view contact as a potential  point of intervention, to better identify and assist at-risk teens, to improve communication skills between police and youth, to connect youth to service providers, and to create coordinated responses and collaborations to prevent sex trafficking and assist survivors.

Since youth victims of sex trafficking often have experienced complex trauma, Williams recommends programs that attract participants using an accessible and proactive approach without creating fear that youth will be arrested or returned to a poor living situation.

Additional references: Look for more articles about police and trafficking and homeless youth and trafficking in our digital library.

Learn more about identifying trafficking victims.

Read more about recognizing and helping youth victims of domestic sex trafficking.a

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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