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Risk Factors for Child Sex Trafficking


While all children are vulnerable to human trafficking, there are risk factors that put youth at increased risk of sex trafficking. These include the following:

  • Prior Abuse or Neglect – Prior abuse or neglect heighten a child’s vulnerability to sex trafficking.
  • Poverty – Poverty is closely linked to vulnerability. A lack of access to resources and income opportunities limits options for impoverished people, making them more susceptible to traffickers who prey on those needs.
  • Homelessness – As previously mentioned, NCMEC found that 1 in 6 runaway and homeless youth reported to NCMEC were likely victims of child sex trafficking. A study conducted by Safe Horizon of homeless youth in New York City found that 95% of homeless youth reported being sexually active and were more likely to engage in survival sex in exchange for money, shelter, food, or other necessities.
  • Substance Abuse – Substance abuse, along with other high-risk behaviors, puts youth at risk for human trafficking. Anti-trafficking advocates have seen cases where addiction was used as a control mechanism by traffickers to coerce and force their victims into engaging in commercial sex against their will.
  • Unaccompanied Foreign Minors – Foreign national youth who are smuggled into the U.S. are at increased risk of being trafficked on their journey to the United States. Separation from parents leaves these minors without the usual safety nets that can prevent and respond to potential trafficking situations. Without these resources, these youth may not know where to find help or feel comfortable accessing it.
  • Mental Health Issues – Unresolved mental health issues can both put youth at risk and be a direct consequence of the traumatic experience of being trafficked.
  • System Involvement – There are often prior histories of abuse, neglect, or delinquent behavior for youth involved in the child welfare, foster care, or the juvenile justice systems that heighten their vulnerability. These types of violence might be normalized, and the adults that are responsible for protecting these children may fail to intervene and stop these harmful behaviors. The resulting lack of trust in authority figures puts the youth at increased risk for recruitment.
  • Feelings of Rejection or Marginalization – A study conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (2008) found that fewer than 10% of the interviewed youth who had been commercially sexually exploited said they could turn to a parent if they found themselves in trouble. Youth in foster care who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender have reported harassment by other foster care youth, discomfort or rejection among foster parents or child welfare staff, and increased challenges accessing appropriate services.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children, Youth and Families (September 2013) Guidance to States and Services on Addressing Human Trafficking of Children and Youth in the United States (Washington, D.C.: DHHS, ACF)

Burwick, Andrew, Gary Gates, Scott Baumgartner, and Daniel Friend. (2014). Human Services for Low-Income and At-Risk LGBT Populations: The Knowledge Base and Research Needs. Project Brief. OPRE Report Number 2014-84. Washington, D.C.: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
See pg. 2 "youth in foster care have reported harassment by peers in child welfare settings, discomfort or rejection by foster parents and agency staff..."

Wilson, B.D.M., Cooper, K., Kastanis, A., & Nezhad, S. (2014). Sexual and Gender Minority Youth in Foster care: Assessing Disproportionality and Disparities in Los Angeles. Los Angeles: The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law.

Cray, Andrew, Katie Miller, and Laura E. Durso. (2013) Seeking Shelter: The Experiences and Unmet Needs of LGBT Homeless Youth. Washington: Center for American Progress.

Issue Brief: Consequence on Youth Homelessness by Safe Horizon

Seeking Shelter: The Experience and Unmet Needs of LGBT Homeless Youth by Andrew Cary, Katie Miller, and Laura E. Durso. Washington: Center for American Progress, (2013) https://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/LGBTHomelessYouth.pdf

Sex Trafficking in the US: A Closer Look at U.S. Citizen Victims (2015)

Additional information:
In order to understand the scope of child sex trafficking in the United States, we have pulled prevalence estimates and statistics from a variety of resources focused on this issue. While the field lacks exact prevalence data on this issue, we can still learn a great deal about the breadth of this problem from the estimates that are available to us.

  • In 2014, The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) found that 1 out of 6 runaways reported to NCMEC were likely child sex trafficking victims. To learn more about the methodology behind these estimates, please visit www.missingkids.com.
  • In June 2014, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Innocence Lost Initiative conducted Operation Cross Country VIII which resulted in the recovery of 168 victims of child sex trafficking and led to the arrest of 281 traffickers. The operation was conducted over 72 hours in 106 cities around the country with the help of state and local law enforcement and NCMEC.

NCMEC (http://www.missingkids.com/KeyFacts)

FBI Innocence Lost (https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/operation-cross-country/operation-cross-country)