Do Youth Workers Respond Differently to Sex Trafficking Based on Their County Type?

A youth services worker.

Sex Trafficking of Minors in Metropolitan, Micropolitan, and Rural Communities” (abstract). Jennifer Cole and Ginny Sprang. Child Abuse & Neglect, Vol. 40, No. 6 (February 2015).

What it’s about: Researchers Cole and Sprang wanted to examine youth-serving professionals’ awareness, knowledge, procedures, and experiences related to youth who were victims of sex trafficking. They also wanted to understand what factors contribute to the trafficking of minors and how service professionals may respond differently based on the communities in which they live. To explore these questions, they conducted telephone surveys of 323 individuals working in human services, juvenile justice, victim services, and related fields like law enforcement. Professionals were put into one of the following categories based on the type of counties in which they worked: metropolitan, micropolitan, rural, or a combination.

Why read it: While studies have addressed sex trafficking of young people in distinct areas like small cities and border towns, little is known about professionals’ awareness of and ability to respond to local cases. Furthermore, many of the studies conducted on youth sex trafficking have focused on large, metropolitan areas like New York City and New Orleans, the authors write. This study fills a literature gap by surveying professionals working in a variety of community types, not just densely populated areas.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Across all four community types, youth sex trafficking victims were most likely to be:

  • A U.S. citizen or permanent resident
  • Trafficked by a family member
  • Recruited into trafficking while living in their home state
  • Trafficked within the same state in which they were already living

No matter where they worked, most participants said they perceived commercial sex trafficking as mainly occurring in metropolitan areas. In a similar vein, more professionals in metropolitan areas said they:

  • Perceived sex trafficking as a fairly or very serious state problem
  • Were fairly or very familiar with federal and state laws on human trafficking
  • Received training on human trafficking

On the topic of experience, those working only in micropolitan areas:

  • Had significantly less experience working with victims of sex trafficking than those working in metropolitan areas, rural communities, or all three community types
  • Reported working with significantly more trafficked boys and young men, on average, than girls and young women

Cole and Sprang's analysis includes some of the challenges to identifying trafficking in non-metropolitan areas, including a common belief among professionals that the problem does not exist locally. They also cite concerns about law enforcement viewing exploited youth as juvenile offenders rather than victims of trafficking.

The authors suggest that future research include the perspectives of those that have been trafficked to better understand how they were recruited and trafficked, and to develop appropriate interventions. They also tout the importance of integrating a trauma-informed approach into child welfare systems to help more agencies identify and assist exploited youth in their care.

Additional references: Find other articles about sex trafficking and service providers’ needs and awareness in our library.

Learn how to recognize and support victims of sex trafficking by reading our brochure "Bought and Sold: Recognizing and Assisting Youth Victims of Domestic Sex Trafficking." Additionally, the National Runaway Safeline offers a training about the commercial sexual exploitation of runaway, homeless, and at-risk youth.

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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