America is a complicated country with a complicated past. Though our country is built on the foundation of freedom and equality, our history is fraught with the subjugation of people of color. While the physical bonds of slavery are largely extinct, the impacts of slavery and persistent racism permeate many communities across the country. This past summer’s police violence and protests highlighted just one form of discrimination people of color face, forcing us to reflect on how institutionalized racism continues to affect racial and ethnic minorities.
While more research is needed to understand the disenfranchisement of African Americans and Latinx populations, there has been general consensus among scholars that these communities are wildly neglected. From 1995-1997, the CDC and Kaiser Permanente conducted the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study to analyze the impacts of early childhood trauma on long-term health, well-being, and opportunity. According to the CDC, adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are potentially traumatic events that occur in an adolescent’s life between the ages of 0-17 years. Examples of trauma include experiencing or witnessing violence, abuse, or neglect in the home, substance misuse, and instability due to parental separation or household members being incarcerated. The results of this study showed a positive correlation between childhood and adulthood trauma.
Perhaps the most disturbing result of the ACEs study is that some children are at greater risk than others of experiencing one or more adverse childhood experiences. In fact, minority children are at the highest risk of experiencing four or more types of ACEs in their adolescence. Living in underserved communities or racially segregated neighborhoods, frequently moving, food insecurity, income inequality, and targeted racial violence are just some of the ways in which children of color may experience trauma. The impacts of ACEs on children should not be underestimated. Such events can lead to toxic stress, which alters brain development, decision-making, learning, relationships, self-worth, and response to stress. Systemic racism is unfortunately one adverse childhood experience that all children of color cannot escape. The National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) reported that 10% of Black and Latinx children experienced individual/interpersonal racism in 2018. With brutal racism on full display in the media via police killings and hate crimes, the stress from the threat of racism is extraordinarily high for children of color.
This past summer highlighted the extreme vulnerability communities of color face within our law enforcement. However, there are numerous, more discrete but equally significant, forms of racially produced adverse childhood experiences that marginalized communities experience. For example, recent studies confirm that African American and Latinx children are more likely to be victims of sex and/or labor trafficking. According to a 2018 study conducted by Thorn, a leading expert in the fight against online exploitation of minors, domestic minor sex trafficking survivors of a racial minority accounted for 74 percent of those who were affected by online exploitation and grooming. Similarly, a 2014 study of the Los Angeles STAR Court found that 91 percent of trafficked girls were African American or Latinx.
Taking into the account the impact of ACEs on a child’s psyche, it is impossible to ignore the possible link between racial minority children and trafficking. Polaris, a prominent organization in the anti-trafficking field and operator of the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, reported that many African American and Latinx families are forced into resource-deprived and neglected communities as a result of unequal access to the same opportunities Caucasian families enjoy. The resulting poverty and unequal protection create an environment in which ACEs can spike in the form of violence, crime, food and home insecurity, and abandonment. These situations can produce toxic stress that inhibits a child’s knowledge of how to avoid dangerous situations. Consequently, children of color who are forced to live under these conditions may be led to believe a trafficking situation as the only way to help support their families or they could be more easily decieved by false promises that lure them into exploitation.
While we may not have the answers to end trafficking among children of color, we can begin to dismantle the adverse childhood experiences they face in early adolescence that may increase their risk of exploitation or abuse. This process requires measurable change in the resources available to low-income African American and Latinx schools, neighborhoods, and families. Providing communities with better access to healthcare, education, and housing are just a few ways to lower the risk of ACEs within these communities, but they are one small step towards much-needed change.
Kelsey Syms serves as program manager for the Combatting Human Trafficking program at the McCain Institute for International Leadership. Eve Grill is a Combatting Human Trafficking intern at the McCain Institute for International Leadership.