Human Trafficking Prevalence and Child Welfare Risk Factors Among Homeless Youth: A Multi-City Study

Human Trafficking Prevalence and Child Welfare Risk Factors Among Homeless Youth: A Multi-City Study

Human Trafficking Prevalence and Child Welfare Risk Factors Among Homeless Youth: A Multi-City Study

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Executive  Summary

The Field Center completed a three-city study as part of a larger initiative by Covenant House International to research human trafficking among homeless youth encompassing nearly 1,000 young people across 13 cities. The Field Center interviewed a total of 270 homeless youth, 100 in Philadelphia, 100 in Phoenix, and 70 in Washington, DC, to learn about the prevalence of human trafficking, and the history of child maltreatment, out of home placement, and protective factors among those who were sex trafficked or engaged in the sex trade to survive. Of those interviewed, 20% were victims of human trafficking, including 17% who were victims of sex trafficking and 6% who were victims of labor trafficking. Fourteen percent engaged in “survival sex” to meet their basic needs. A total of 36% of those interviewed reported engaging in a commercial sex act at some point in their lives.

Two out of three homeless females reported being solicited for paid sex. For all genders, 22% of those homeless youth who were approached for paid sex had this happen on their very first night of being homeless. Transgender youth were particularly vulnerable, with 90% of transgender youth reporting being offered money for sex.
For youth who reported that they were victims of sex trafficking, 95% had a history of child maltreatment. While 59% report telling someone that they were abused, only 36% of them report that the person they told took some action on their behalf. Among those who were maltreated, the highest percentage of youth reported being sexually abused (49%), followed by physical abuse (33%).
A total of 41% of those who were sex trafficked had at least one out-of-home placement at some point in their lives, and many experienced frequent moves. Over 50% did not have a place to live at some point prior to their 18th birthday, and 88% of youth who experienced commercial sex lived in at least one place without a biological parent. Sixty three percent reported involvement with the child welfare system.

LGBTQ youth appear to have experienced a higher level of sex trafficking, comprising 39% of those who reported being trafficked, though they represented only 15% of the total interviewed. Transgender youth are particularly vulnerable, with 60% of those surveyed reporting sex trafficking. Although the sample size is too small to generalize, it points to increased risk for these young people.
For those who were sex trafficked, when asked what could have helped prevent them from being in this situation, the most frequent response was having supportive parents or family members. Youth who lacked a caring adult in their lives were more likely to be victims of sex trafficking.
Education was also distinguished in the data. Victims of sex trafficking were 72% more likely to have dropped out of high school than the full sample of homeless youth. Of those who reported being sex trafficked, only 22% had a high school diploma and 11% had attended some college. A full 67% had not graduated from high school, compared to 41% of the total sample. Thus, graduating from high school appears to be a protective factor.


BACKGROUND According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2014), sexual exploitation is the most commonly identified form of human trafficking ahead of forced labor. Numbers released by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center suggest this also is true in the U.S., where more than 5,500 cases of sex trafficking were reported in 2016 (National Human Trafficking Hotline, 2017).
Sex trafficking is a form of Human Trafficking as defined by the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA). In the TVPA, Congress defines severe forms of trafficking as:
1.  Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or
2.  The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through use of force, fraud, or coercion for purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery (8 U.S.C. § 1101).
Victims of commercial sexual exploitation have been forced, coerced, or otherwise manipulated into performing sex acts in exchange for something of value; contrary to popular opinion that sex trafficking is predominantly an international trade, it is increasingly prevalent in the United States (Bounds, Julion & Delaney, 2015). According to the U.S. Department of Justice (2012), the official definition of a commercial sex act is one performed for exchange of anything of value given to or received by any person. Types of sex trafficking include prostitution, pornography, stripping, live-sex shows, mail-order brides, military prostitution, and sex tourism. Previous studies indicate threat for sex trafficking is highest when both individual risk factors and environmental challenges collude in a young person’s life, including poverty, homelessness, a history of maltreatment, low educational attainment, identifying as gender nonconforming or sexual minority, lack of work opportunities, lack of family support, and lack of connection to caring adults beyond caregivers (Finklea, FernandesAlcantara & Siskin, 2015; Gerassi, 2015; Tyler, 2008).
Children and young adults are particularly vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation (CSE), and national data provide insight into the scope of the problem plaguing young people. Despite numerous attempts to estimate the annual number of child trafficking victims in the United States, the exact number of how many children in the U.S. are victims or at risk is currently unknown (U.S. DOJ, 2012). Early research estimated that between 244,000 and 325,000 children are at risk of domestic minor sex trafficking each year (Estes & Weiner, 2002). However, later reports caution that none of such estimates are based on a true scientific foundation, and thus no reliable estimates exist (Mitchell, Finkelhor & Wolak, 2010). By combining estimates of youth at risk of sexual exploitation with estimates of child trafficking victims, the early estimates are likely highly inflated and the true incidence rate is unknown (Salisbury, Dabney & Russell, 2014; Fong & Cardoso, 2010; Stransky & Finkelhor, 2008).
The most commonly identified risk factor for commercial sexual exploitation of children is a history of childhood sexual abuse (Ahrens et al., 2012). For example, a National Institute of Justice (1994) report asserts minors who were sexually abused were 28 times more likely to be arrested for prostitution at some point in their lives than minors who were not sexually abused. A history of sexual molestation was also significantly associated with increased odds of having transactional or survival sex, with gender and sexual orientation being a significant factor. Additional research has demonstrated that the younger a girl is when she first becomes involved in prostitution, the greater the likelihood that she has a history of childhood sexual abuse. In addition to a history of childhood abuse, prostituted girls are likely to have experienced other forms of family disruption (Clawson et al., 2009).
For those who enter the child welfare system, additional risks may contribute to the possibility of commercial sexual exploitation, as multiple placements and/or group homes may expose minors to further abuse or coercion into trafficking (Choi, 2015). Recent findings suggest that close to two thirds of those investigated as victims of trafficking had a significant history of child maltreatment and prior child protective services involvement (Havlicek, Huston, Boughton & Zhang, 2016).
Many victims of sex trafficking in the U.S. are vulnerable and marginalized young people who are on the street and transient (Fong & Cardoso, 2010). As such, homelessness has also been identified as an important and malleable risk factor among young people who engage in survival sex. Several studies conducted with samples of this population have found this association. For example, Bender, Yang, Ferguson and Thompson (2015) interviewed 601 homeless youth who were seeking services in three U.S. cities. Almost 13% of the sample reported engaging in prostitution to generate income while homeless. Gwadz, Gostnell, Smolenski, Willis, Nish, Nolan et al. (2009) also interviewed a sample of homeless youth who were receiving services from providers in New York City. Nearly 34% of the sample reported trading sex for money, drugs, food or shelter. Similarly, a 1999 study examined the prevalence of survival sex among a nationally representative sample of 1,159 homeless and runaway youth in various U.S. cities (Greene, Ennett & Ringwalt, 1999). Thirty-seven percent of the sample reported engagement in survival sex.
Given the hidden nature of domestic minor sex trafficking, the difficulties in documenting occurrence, and the plethora of overlapping risk factors, the present study examines the prevalence of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation among homeless youth in multiple cities and investigates child maltreatment, child welfare, and out-of-home placement experiences as well as resilience factors for victims of trafficking and other forms of commercial sex.