What is child trafficking?
There are various definitions associated with child trafficking. A brief summary is presented below:
Human Trafficking: The use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain labor or a commercial sex act.
Child Sex Trafficking: A crime involving the movement of a person under the age of 18 to exploit the minor for capital gain through sexual exploitation. The TVPA (Trafficking Victims Protection Act) states that if an individual is under the age of 18, the use of fraud, force, or coercion is not required for participation in commercial sexual activity to be considered trafficking. The crime is defined as trafficking even when the child was moved voluntarily within a country, or across borders. Movement increases the minor’s vulnerability by moving them away from contacts and money to a location that is unfamiliar to them.
Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Minor U.S. citizens that are engaged in commercial sex. This definition is considered too broad by some, as trafficking cases are hard to separate from other reasons minors engage in commercial sex, like for survival sex or in cases where there is no exploiter or “pimp”.
Child Trafficker: All who contributed to the trafficking with the knowledge that what they did was likely to lead to the exploitation of the child. This includes recruiters, intermediaries, transporters, and any adult who aids or benefits from a relationship with a minor involved in commercial sex.
Commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC): Sexually abusing a minor for financial gain through commercial sex including child pornography, stripping, and sexual acts.
Commercial sex: Defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act as ‘‘any sex act of which anything of value is given to or received by any person.”
Survival Sex: Sex in exchange for food, shelter, or other goods. Homelessness, especially on the street, is a huge risk factor for minors.
How do I identify a victim?
Many minors rarely identify as victims. They typically describe their trafficker as someone who cares for them more than anyone else ever has. Below are some red flags that may indicate a trafficking victim. The presence of these red flags does not always mean the child is a trafficking victim, but they do serve as clues.
- Has a controlling “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” who is noticeably older
- Inability to speak to individual alone
- Individual cannot freely move about
- Individual avoids eye contact when addressed
- Doesn’t respond to questions or responses appear coached and rehearsed
- Signs of physical abuse, hunger, sleep deprivation or drug addiction
- Bruises in various states of healing. May attempt to conceal injuries.
- Makes references to frequent travel to other cities
- Acts uncharacteristically promiscuous and/or makes references to sexual situations
- Signs of depression, anxiety & nervousness
- Fearful and withdrawn
- Name tattoos or other branding marks
- Hotel keys and keycards in their possession
- Prepaid cell phone
- Lies about age or possesses fake ID
- Unable or unwilling to give information about parents/guardian
- Changes in school performance, attendance, hygiene habits, personality, friendships, or possessions
How do I report a trafficking situation?
About 80% of victims reported that they wanted help while they were being trafficked at some point. If you think you may have identified a victim, the first thing to do is to call the National Human Trafficking Hotline 1.888.373.7888. If someone is in immediate danger, call 911. Never try to intervene in a situation by yourself. Always follow protocol and call the Human Trafficking Hotline.
Remember that many minors do not consider themselves to be victims, and may even consider their current situation an improvement over their life before trafficking. This may lead victims to want to protect their trafficker, and even view the trafficker as a romantic figure or a father figure. In addition, minors tend to have poor memory recall and a warped sense of time due to trauma. Many fear retribution and have an underlying distrust of authority, so they may refuse to provide information or provide false information. When working with a potential victim, avoid judgmental reactions, avoid interrupting, and remain calm, focused and respectful. Do not ask a barrage of questions. Give control of the conversation to the child and reassure them that they are not to blame. Focus on the child’s strength in confiding in you and offer to pause if the child begins to feel stressed.
What is the scope of the problem?
Knowing the full scope of how pervasive child trafficking is in the community is complicated by differing definitions of the issue, the lack of a common database, difficulties in victim ID, victim reluctance to self-identify, victim fear of authorities and retaliation from traffickers, small sample sizes in studies of the population, and mixed populations of adults and minors in studies. Scientifically reliable numbers defining the scope of the problem are not available, but we do have some estimates as to the scope of the issue: General human trafficking figures estimate that 49% of the victims are women and 33% are children with incidents recorded in over 152 countries. The International Labour Organization estimates there are 4.5 million victims of forced sexual exploitation worldwide. Due largely to increased awareness, trafficking reports in the U.S. increase every year. In 2016, 8,042 cases were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. In Texas, researchers identified 79,000 youth and minor victims of sex trafficking. Most experts agree that current estimates undercount the true number, with male victims being seriously underrepresented. Global annual human trafficking revenues average at about $32 billion with U.S. revenues between $39.9 million and $290 million per year, depending on the city. Child trafficking is embedded within the commercial sex industry. Most domestic buyers are not intentionally seeking out minors, but instead are responding to ads where minors are advertised as 18 or older.
Who does child trafficking affect?
It is estimated that 83% of U.S. sex trafficking victims are U.S. citizens. The average victim age is estimated to be 15 years old, with some as young as 5 years old. About 26% of victims are Caucasian and 40% are African American. Traffickers target individuals across race, gender, and economic background, but those in poverty are disproportionately affected. Traffickers typically seek targets that are economically and emotionally vulnerable and in need of support. Many victims have a rough home life and are looking for love and to make their own choices. The highest risk communities are homeless individuals, youth in the foster care system, and youth who have been abused. In Texas, the victimization rate for children that have been abused, homeless children, and children served by DFPS is about 25%.
“I would look for deprived [females] or females in bad situations or runaways”-Incarcerated trafficker
“How I approached it depended on how bad their situation was. In a bad situation, I’d say, ‘You’re already having sex with guys and not getting anything, you should get something.’ In a better situation, tell them they’re pretty and they should be modeling. Then tell them they can get paid a little more if they do this or that” – Incarcerated trafficker
My perfect employee for business had a taste for things that glitter, was persuaded easily, was sexually active, was damaged (i.e. daddy issues, victim, etc.), motivated by poverty, and willing to go the distance. – Incarcerated trafficker
“Most (recruits) came from broken homes. Mom and dad were divorced. Mom wasn’t paying them much attention. Even though they were pretty and had nice bodies, they still had low self-esteem. You can tell by body language—hunched over, sad looking”- Incarcerated trafficker
How do traffickers recruit their victims?
Traffickers target victims online through social media websites and apps, at local places like shopping malls and bus depots, in clubs, and through friends, current victims or acquaintances who recruit students on and off school campuses. Personal social networks and relationships are a powerful recruitment tool. Traffickers commonly recruit friends of family members, friends of other girls they have pimped, and others in their neighborhood. They recruit in many places such as malls, transit stations, beaches, gas stations, campuses, clubs, and restaurants. Schools, malls, and transit locations in particular are associated with minors. Online ads for employment are also used for recruitment, often calling for “models” and presenting the opportunity for a photo shoot. Pimps also search existing online advertisements on sites like Craigslist and Backpage for women and girls who might be working independently.
Girls already involved with the trafficker are often made to help with recruiting, especially from train stations, bus stops, bus stations, clubs, detention facilities, group homes, continuation schools, homeless shelters, and from social media. These girls are typically called “bottoms”. Although the bottom is both a victim and an offender, law enforcement takes the position that if the person is actively involved in recruitment, they will be charged with trafficking.
Many traffickers engage in romantic or physical relationships with the recruits. When a trafficker chooses a victim, they engage in a process called “grooming”. Grooming is when a trafficker builds an emotional connection with a minor to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual exploitation. Groomers can be any ethnicity, age or gender, but traffickers often use a groomer who is about 5 years older than the victim. A trafficker gets to know the minor, identifying vulnerabilities, befriending them & establishing trust. Traffickers relate to the victims’ desire for family and belonging. They earn victims’ trust by making them feel loved and promising to care for them. Former traffickers said that pointing out to the girls they were “already doing it for free” was particularly influential with those who were economically disadvantaged. In addition, prominently displaying their wealth was key to recruiting. Traffickers then appeal to their victims’ emotional and economic needs through “finesse pimping,” which involves providing wants and desires in return for engaging in commercial sex. Other traffickers use a “gorilla pimping” style to intimidate and coerce an individual into trading sex through violence or threats, though this is less common. Many emphasized the use of mental and emotional manipulation over violence or drugs.
What is the cost?
The health issues that result from child sex trafficking are extensive. Victims are at high risk for injuries, assault, infectious diseases such as HIV and STIs, substance abuse, untreated chronic medical issues, dental disease, malnutrition, homicide, major depression, PTSD, and suicide. The most immediate needs of survivors include shelter, safety, food, and clothing. Survivors also require social services, including health care, trauma counseling, educational attainment, job training and legal assistance. In Texas, about $6.5 billion is spent on the lifetime care cost for victims. These costs include law enforcement and social services such as health care costs.
What factors raise the risk of victimization?
- Young age (11-14): Youth have limited life experience and immature frontal lobe development that favors risk-taking behavior and impulsivity.
- Lack of awareness of trafficking indicators and resources for help.
- History of child physical or sexual abuse, neglect, early exposure to violence, and family dysfunction. These lead to increased risk-taking behavior, altered emotional development, and inappropriate sexual boundaries. Estimates show that between 70-90% of those involved in commercial sex have a history of abuse, especially sexual abuse.
- Unhealthy relationships and adverse childhood experiences also result low self-esteem, a high need for affection, and inappropriate sexual boundaries.
- Feeling unloved/high need for affection/desire for family and belonging. 77% of victims said their trafficker gave them the love they were searching for.
- View of self as sex object. Objectification leads to the early socialization of women and girls who, by adopting the view of themselves as sexual objects, become prime targets for exploitation.
- Instrumental attitudes towards sex as primarily physical or casual rather than affectionate or relational.
- Frequent use of social media, online games and dating websites. Belief that the internet is a safe place to meet people.
- Engagement in risky sexual online behavior. Minors lack the risk attenuation needed to discern and manage online dangers and content in safe ways. When teens are more frequently exposed to online porn, they are more likely to believe real-life sex is like porn and that women are sex objects.
- Homeless, runaway, thrown-away (LGBT) youth and youth with a history with police, foster care, CPS are at high risk.
- Substance use: Traffickers can more easily manipulate teens that are struggling with addiction and can use it as a method of control.
- Gang association
- School problems: behavioral, truancy, absenteeism
- Mistrust of authorities and professionals
- Financial insecurity/perceived lack of viable economic alternatives
- Belief that commercial sex is quick, easy money
- Has family members or friends in sex work, or who have purchased sex
- Family dysfunction, lack of a supportive home
- Family attitudes towards sex as primarily casual and potentially a way to gain something
- Social pressure normalizing purchasing of sex
- Peer pressure from “friends” who are involved in trafficking
- Intimate partner who is involved in trafficking
- Permissive peer norms relating to risky sexual online behavior
What societal factors contribute to the issue of child trafficking?
- High demand for buying sex. Occurs in both rural and urban areas alike. Many buyers are not actively seeking minors, but instead respond to ads where the minor is advertised as being 18 or above. Demand is highest around areas of high transient male population (convention centers, sporting events, military bases, truck stops) and areas of raw material extraction (large influx of workers and other individuals, some of whom will create a demand for the commercial sex industry).
- Easy internet availability makes buying and advertising sex easy. Minors are typically found in street-based or internet-facilitated venues, with many moving indoors due to the role of the internet.
- High Profitability. Compared to the drug trade or arms trade, human trafficking is profitable because you can sell the “product” multiple times. It is perceived as a highly profitable enterprise by traffickers.
- Perceived low risk of punishment for traffickers and buyers. Compared to other criminal enterprises, there is a perception from both buyers and traffickers that they are not as likely to get into legal trouble.
- Gang presence. Not all traffickers are involved with gangs, but there is an association between gang presence in the community and trafficking.
- Lack of training amongst investigators, prosecutors, healthcare professionals, educators
- Lack of detection training amongst business employees (hotels/motels, bars, clubs, restaurants, airlines, etc.)
- Misidentification of youth as criminals. In some areas especially where there is a lack of training, youth are arrested for prostitution and prosecuted, rather than be recognized as victims.
- Under-resourced local youth services
- An overburdened CPS system
- Lack of culturally sensitive mental health service
- Lack of awareness of child trafficking as a local, domestic issue and dismissal of trafficking as a public health issue.
- Victim reluctance to testify due to stigma, fear, victim-blaming, negative reactions to disclosure, and lack of societal support.
- Lack of legal precedents and case law. State statutes on human trafficking are relatively new, so there is a lack of precedent and case law. Prosecutors have to operate with little or no guidance on prosecutorial techniques or other resources, such as sample jury instructions.
- Lack of institutional infrastructure to support prosecution (ex: specialized human trafficking units). Suspects are charged for human trafficking offenses in some cases, but in others, offenders were prosecuted for different offenses, such as rape. The 2008 reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act mandates that the FBI collect information about human trafficking offenses through the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program. Unless state and local law enforcement routinely investigate human trafficking cases as such, crime data reported through the UCR undercounts instances of human trafficking. Underreporting is particularly harmful when agencies tie funding decisions to what the crime data show.
- Objectification of women and girls. *Remember, males are also victims and can be objectified, although not as blatantly in our society.
- Gender inequality, bias and discrimination
- Cultural disenfranchisement. Historical disenfranchisement has left some groups more vulnerable than others economically, which is one factor affecting the reason why cultural minorities are victimized at a higher rate.
- Popular media: Glamorization of pimp culture and casual sex.
- Online subculture of acceptance of sex buyers as the norm. When communicating with others who purchase sex in online communities, buyers tend to perceive purchasing sex as a normal activity.
- Acceptance of rape myths, child abuse myths and prostitution myths
What are potential solutions to the problem?
While victim services are important, prevention is critical in order to bring child trafficking to an end. Families, communities, and young people need to be aware of trafficking red flags and know how to safely respond. To prevent victimization, young people must be aware of how traffickers recruit and gain skills to resist. We also must address youth homelessness and viable economic opportunities for high-risk youth, such as those who have been in the juvenile justice system and dysfunctional families. Finally, we must prevent our youth from becoming future victims and buyers. According to men who purchased sex, most agreed that greater criminal penalties such as large fines or jail time would deter them, but they were not convinced that the laws would be enforced by police or politicians. Legal consequences could be very effective in deterring buyers, but the buyers must believe that the likelihood of enforcement is high. One consqeuence of further criminalization, though, it that it can make sex work more covert and more dangerous for those willingly involved.