Trafficking and Runaway Youth

When Tina was 14, she was forced to work the streets by an older “boyfriend.” In testimony to a congressional subcommittee, Tina, now a street outreach coordinator for an anti-human-trafficking organization, detailed the beatings and emotional trauma she suffered at the hands of the man who initially won her over with love and attention before humiliating her and forcing her and three other girls onto the streets of Cleveland, Ohio. During that terrifying time, Tina said, she felt that she had nowhere to turn for help. She knew of no one who could provide her with the specific services she needed to regain control of her life.

Street outreach workers are often the first to come into contact with young victims of human trafficking like Tina. They may be runaway or homeless youth, or they may appear to be. And they often have needs similar to those of runaway and homeless youth clients, including shelter, health care, counseling, and other support services. But recognizing and helping human trafficking victims, who are often scared, manipulated, and abused, can be complicated. As the Federal government increases awareness of and services for domestic trafficking victims, street outreach workers may be called on more and more to recognize and refer young people like Tina to the services they need to reclaim their lives.

Indeed, in 2005, the Administration on Children & Families began awarding a small number of grants to street outreach providers to help identify victims of trafficking among the populations they already work with, including at-risk and homeless youth and girls exploited through commercial sex. The grants supported direct, person- to-person contact, information sharing, and counseling.

In fall 2006, ACF awarded an additional $3.4 million in grants to organizations across the country to fight human trafficking and provide assistance to victims.

“These grants will strengthen our effort to rescue and restore victims of human trafficking,” said Wade Horn, HHS assistant secretary for children and families. “They will enable groups to expand their outreach to identify and help more victims of this modern-day form of slavery.”

Who is a trafficking victim?

Trafficking victims can be boys or girls of all races and ethnicities. They can come from wealthy families or poor ones in cities, suburbs, or rural areas. Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, anyone under the age of 18 who is used for a commercial sex act is automatically a victim of  “severe forms of trafficking in persons,” regardless of whether he or she is a “willing” participant. Trafficking victims 18 and older must have been subject to force, fraud, or coercion.

How do I stay safe when approaching potential trafficking victims?

According to Karen Countryman-Roswurm, a street outreach expert at Wichita Children’s Home, safety measures should include:

  • Do some geographic analysis. Where is sexual exploitation happening in your area? Be realistic about whether that place is safely accessible. If it is, park your van in the area for a while and just watch for hints of the particular street culture of the neighborhood.
  • Before you jump out of your van to approach a potential victim, assess the situation. Is someone trying to pick them up? Is the trafficker watching? If you approach, is that going to get them beat up?
  • Always respect gender roles. Street outreach teams should consist of a man and a woman. The female team member should approach a suspected female victim, with the male team member standing within a safe distance. The male team member should address a male trafficker, should it be necessary to do so.
  • Be careful how much you badmouth the person who’s exploiting the victim – it’s often her “boyfriend” or “caregiver.” Victims may not consider themselves exploited.
  • Set protocols and build relationships with the local police and the regional FBI. Conduct trainings to help them understand how to treat youth who are involved in sexual exploitation so that you feel comfortable calling them in to situations where you may need help.
  • What do I need to think about when providing services to these young people?
  • Victims will often deny the abuse because they or their families have been threatened or they are embarrassed. Being persistent and asking the right questions may help you determine if someone is a victim of human trafficking.
  • Enlist the help of a staff member who speaks the potential victim’s language and understands his or her culture.
  • Victims need safe housing away from traffickers or their associates.
  • Because victims have been so isolated from their families and friends, they often feel that going back to their exploiter is the only option.
  • Reestablishing social connections is crucial. Be aware, however, that exploiters often use victims to recruit other youth.
  • Victims often have no identification and need help getting new, untraceable replacements.
  • Victims need services, such as transportation, vocational training, and life skills, similar to all runaway and homeless youth.
  • Victims need mental health services from professionals trained to deal with extreme forms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Victims often need extreme medical and dental care.

Where do I go for more information?

The Administration for Children & Families’ anti-human trafficking campaign helps identify and assist victims of human trafficking in the United States. You’ll find campaign materials you can use to raise awareness and other resources to help you serve victims.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center is a national, toll-free hotline open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year. It is operated by Polaris, a nonprofit anti-trafficking organization, through a grant from ACF. The resource center offers assistance to victims, concerned individuals and social service providers in more than 200 languages. Call 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733).

This page was updated in January 2015. Learn about the Family & Youth Services Bureau’s current anti-trafficking initiatives.

The Numbers

  • Every day, approximately 1.3 million runaway, thrownaway, and homeless youth live on the streets of America.
  • Children, both boys and girls, are solicited for sex, on average, within 72 hours of being on the street.
  • Approximately 55 percent of street girls engage in formal prostitution; 75 percent of those work for a pimp. About one in five of these children becomes entangled in nationally organized crime networks and is forced to travel far from home and isolated from friends and family.
  • A girl will first become a victim of prostitution between the ages of 12 and 14, on average.

What are Some Signs that a Young Person May Be a Victim of Trafficking?

(Note: This list is not exhaustive.)

  • No identification or fake identification
  • Bruises and other physical signs of abuse (or covering up abuse with too much clothing)
  • Evidence that time or schedule is being controlled
  • Evidence that movement is being controlled or restricted
  • Living on or near job location
  • No money or control over spending
  • Cut off from family
  • Isolated from friends or other social network
  • Gaps in life story
  • Paranoia or hypervigilance
  • Mistrustful, particularly of law enforcement
  • Aggressive, destructive behavior
  • Malnourished
  • Untreated health and dental problems