Teen Dating Violence Can Lead to Human Trafficking, but Healthy Relationships Can Prevent Both

Teen Dating Violence Can Lead to Human Trafficking, but Healthy Relationships Can Prevent Both

Teen Dating Violence Can Lead to Human Trafficking, but Healthy Relationships Can Prevent Both

In her Voices of Freedom conversation, Evelyn Chumbow explains what was most helpful when leaving her trafficking situation: “having someone there that I could trust, that I can be open with—that gave me a reason not to be afraid, that everything was going to be okay.” Evelyn is describing a relationship grounded in safety, honesty, and mutual connection. For Evelyn, this was with her lawyer; for others who have experienced human trafficking, it may be friends and family, teachers, caregivers, social workers, or healthcare providers.

As Evelyn’s story shows, safe, healthy relationships can help people leave and recover from their trafficking experience. According to 2021 data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, friends and family members were the top reported access points for help among people experiencing human trafficking. However, these same close connections—family, caregivers, and intimate partners—often recruit people into trafficking situations. Of the 16,554 people the Hotline identified as having potentially experienced human trafficking with a known recruiter type (4,010), most reported they were recruited by someone they knew, with 33% reporting their recruiter as a family member or caregiver and 28% reporting their recruiter as an intimate partner.

This data illustrates how human trafficking can be highly personal, with traffickers often exploiting those close to them. Abusers and traffickers take advantage of people who want love, connection, or support, gaining their trust and then maintaining control through physical or emotional manipulation, threatening to withhold crucial resources like shelter, food, and financial assistance. In this way, human trafficking is like other forms of interpersonal violence, which, at their core, are an abuse of trust, respect, and safety. With February being National Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month (TDVAM), now is an important time to discuss how promoting healthy relationships early in life can prevent and disrupt cycles of abuse.

Helping young people understand the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships is a key part of preventing all forms of violence, including dating violence and human trafficking.

Here are two ways everyone can partner to prevent human trafficking:

Provide opportunities for children and youth to observe healthy interactions. Exposure to interpersonal violence at a young age can distort a child’s understanding of what is healthy—and what isn’t.

Learn to recognize signs of dating violence, stalking, and digital and emotional abuse, including demeaning text messages, dangerous threats, and more. When children and youth are shown that healthy relationships—including relationships with family members, peers, romantic partners, and adults in positions of authority—are grounded in respect, trust, equality, and open communication, they will be more likely to recognize the warning signs when a relationship is moving in a direction that is no longer safe. Giving children and youth the opportunity to observe healthy behaviors in someone else’s relationship can give them a baseline to assess behaviors in their own relationships.

Practice safe and healthy relationship skills. Building healthy relationships centered on choice, consent, appropriate boundaries, and conflict resolution can strengthen self-image, school performance, and interpersonal and leadership skills while reducing behaviors that may place youth at risk for violence and abuse.

Parents, caregivers, social workers, school-based professionals, and others working closely with children can help them understand and practice the components of healthy relationships. When given the opportunity to practice skills, children will be more likely to use these skills as they begin to form new relationships.

Consider opportunities to model and practice healthy behaviors with children in multiple settings.

Healthy Behavior Model Practice
Asking for Consent/Input Ask for consent before:

  • Engaging in physical contact (hug, kiss, tickling).
  • Taking and/or sharing a photo.
  • Sharing personal information (about them or someone else).

Let children watch and, when relevant to them, participate in conversations where two or more people are discussing how to spend their time.

Have children ask their peers for consent before engaging in physical contact.

When appropriate, give children the opportunity to express preferences around how they will spend their time.

Resolving Conflict When appropriate, allow children to watch you work through a problem or disagreement with a partner or friend or talk to them about how you’ve solved conflict in the past.

When problem-solving with children, model the behaviors you would like them to use.

When experiencing conflict, encourage children to:

  • Identify their emotions.
  • Consider the root of the problem.
  • Brainstorm solutions.
  • Communicate how they feel while also trying to understand the other person’s perspective.
Setting and Maintaining Boundaries When appropriate, allow children to watch you set and/or maintain a boundary with a partner or friend.

When setting boundaries with children, be clear and consistent, reminding them that accepting someone’s boundaries is a sign of respect.

Whenever it is appropriate and safe to do so, respect boundaries children set for themselves. If boundaries cannot be honored, consider discussing the reason and work together to establish appropriate ones.

Co-develop a list of situations where they think a boundary is needed (e.g., a friend or family member asking them to do something they aren’t comfortable with, someone sending them unwanted material online, etc.).

Role-play setting boundaries (e.g., telling a friend or family member that they do not want a hug/kiss and would prefer to say hello or goodbye in a different way.)

Relationships don’t form in a vacuum, and preventing violence requires strong partnerships across multiple sectors of society. Like human trafficking, many factors can influence teen dating violence, such as economic mobility; safe, affordable housing; and access to high-quality education and health care. Fostering these protective factors can strengthen healthy relationships among families and entire communities, creating strong models and empowering teens to build their own. Here are some resources that can help build healthy relationships and prevent violence:

  • The Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) funds programs that prevent dating, family, and domestic violence by increasing individual, family, and community safety and providing supportive services to people who have experienced or been exposed to these forms of abuse.
  • FSYB’s Family Violence Prevention and Services Act Program builds protective factors like parent-child engagement, health and behavioral health support, and household financial security, all of which are necessary to create and maintain healthy relationships.
  • The Office on Trafficking in Person’s (OTIP) Human Trafficking Youth Prevention Education (HTYPE) Demonstration Program funds local education agencies to develop and implement programs to prevent human trafficking through skills-based human trafficking training and education for school staff and students. OTIP is currently seeking applicants for a new cohort of HTYPE recipients.  The report of reflections from the first year of the HTYPE program and School Safety Protocol Toolkit are available online.
  • LoveIsRespect’s 2023 Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month Action Guide includes resources for navigating healthy relationships, addressing online harassment and abuse, and supporting teens and young adults. Their Parent Discussion Guide on Youth Healthy Relationships explores how parents can have meaningful conversations with youth and empower them to have healthy relationships.
  • Join the TDVAM activities hosted by other national domestic violence technical assistance providers, state domestic violence coalitions, local domestic violence programs, community-based organizations, etc. to amplify awareness efforts, help strengthen partnerships, and improve networking and collaboration.
  • The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence’s Preventing and Responding to Teen Dating Violence is a collection of collaborative and multi-level approach resources for addressing teen dating violence.
  • OTIP’s Information Memorandum and Infographic on technology-facilitated trafficking provide information on trends of online harassment and abuse experienced by children and youth to inform prevention practices.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Dating Matters Toolkit includes trainings, program materials, and other resources youth, parents, schools, and neighborhoods can use to promote healthy teen relationships and prevent dating violence.

If you or someone you know is experiencing dating violence or trafficking, help is available.