Perspectives on Serving Sex-Trafficked Youth

Young people talking under a streetlight at night.

Supporting Youth Involved in Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Divergent Perspectives on Youth Agency” (abstract). Beth Sapiro, Laura Johnson, Judy L. Postmus, and Cassandra Simmel. Child Abuse & Neglect, Vol. 58 (August 2016).

What it’s about: Sapiro et al. wanted to learn how staff working in various capacities to address human trafficking define best practices for working with youth involved in domestic-minor sex trafficking (DMST), and where these various stakeholders agree and disagree. To find out, the researchers conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 20 predominantly female stakeholders. Nearly half of the interviewees worked at nonprofits that directly serve survivors; the rest worked in law enforcement, child welfare services, or education.

Why read it: Research is lacking on effective interventions to serve youth who are survivors of DMST, according to the authors. Conducting such research is challenging in part because the sensitivity and confidentiality of the information involved make it difficult to identify youth victims of sex trafficking or accurately quantify their number. This study highlights the need for professionals to work together to provide holistic, trauma-informed services to domestically trafficked youth, even though staff may disagree on ways to do so.    

Biggest takeaways from the research: Stakeholders agreed that young people involved in DMST had typically experienced extensive neglect, abuse, and family disruption. Stakeholders revealed differing views on youth agency – the capacity youth have to make their own decisions. These divergent perspectives on youth agency were reflected in stakeholder disagreement on the following three topics:

Running away. Although running away is a common and challenging problem for programs serving youth victims of sex trafficking, stakeholders disagreed on how to interpret and respond to it. Some saw running away as a normal behavior for youth traumatized by having been trafficked. Others interpreted running away as an indicator that a program had failed in its responsibility to keep the trafficked youth safe. Another group of stakeholders viewed running away as a behavioral problem best resolved by placing youth in a secured facility.

Location of services. Some stakeholders believed that youth victims of sex trafficking should be served in remote and secure facilities with constant supervision, to prevent their return to settings where traffickers or recruiters could easily contact them. Other stakeholders argued that youth should be served in areas easily accessible to community providers, professionals, and systems that work together to serve this vulnerable population. One child welfare stakeholder shared that “a program can be in [the] middle of nowhere and if kids want to run, they would still run. It’s about environment in the building, not physical locale.”

Use of technology. Access to cell phones and the internet is a major challenge when serving youth victims of sex trafficking because traffickers and recruiters can use this technology to remain in contact with the youth. Some stakeholders believed that programs should restrict young people’s access to phones and the internet to prevent this contact and head off relapse into a trafficking situation. Other stakeholders argued that it is unreasonable for youth not to have cell phones or internet access while in a program, because for some youth technology is their main source of social connection to supportive family and friends protective against trafficking.  

The authors recommend that future research on best practices for serving trafficked youth incorporate the perspectives and experiences of these youth.

Additional references: Learn more about sex trafficking and trauma-informed care in our digital library.

Read our guide on serving survivors of sex trafficking, “Bought and Sold: Recognizing and Assisting Youth Victims of Domestic Sex Trafficking.”

Listen to our podcast on serving trafficked youth.

Read the NCFY Report “New Partners in the Fight Against Trafficking.”

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