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The Research on Child Sex Trafficking

How to fight modern-day slavery.

Photo by Joel Mott on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Joel Mott on Unsplash

Worldwide, there are over 40 million people in slavery. Never before in human history have this many people been enslaved. Modern day slavery is a multibillion-dollar industry generating an estimated $150 billion annually.

Traffickers prey on the vulnerable and the weak; 1 in 4 victims of modern slavery is a child.

In the following research recap, Jenny Hwang and Shayne Moore report on the heart-rending data about child trafficking. The research begs us to learn and act on behalf of the unprotected.

What has been done so far?

Two decades ago, the world began in earnest to combat human trafficking. In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed groundbreaking legislation with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). This was a federal response to human trafficking. After the TVPA became law, the United Nations adopted its protocol against human trafficking.

This protocol has yielded many proven practices to combat trafficking. The three-pronged approach focuses on prosecution, protection and prevention. Since then, 175 countries have signed on to this protocol. We have made huge strides in fighting human trafficking, but there is much more work to do. To combat modern slavery, we must understand it.

What does the research on human trafficking show?

January was National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

As we look back on the awareness raised last month, and the strides that continue in an effort to end modern slavery, it is also important to look into the research findings on human trafficking.

Here is a helpful summary of psychological research studies that teach us how to protect victims and engage proven prevention models for those at increased risk, such as the institutionalized child and minors caught in sex trafficking.

Vulnerabilities in the Child Welfare system

Sex trafficking of women and girls in a southern Ontario region: Police file review exploring victim characteristics, trafficking experiences and the intersection with child welfare.

The authors of this research project note that domestic sex trafficking is a growing crime in Canada, and the majority of victims are children and youth who are or were in the Child Welfare (CW) system. However, it is poorly understood why these youth are so vulnerable, particularly within the Canadian context. The purpose of this research project was to increase understanding of the elevated risk status of CW-involved youth who are victimized by sex traffickers, as well as explore routes into sex trafficking.

Researchers collaborated with local CW and police agencies to conduct a secondary data analysis of sex trafficking cases from 2008 to 2016. Findings note that CW victims were more likely to: use alcohol, cocaine, and crystal methamphetamine; live in a group home; and experience childhood maltreatment.

Results from this study suggest early identification of high-risk status should be a priority for CW agencies.

Reporters recognizing domestic violence victims

Mandated reporters' perceptions of and encounters with domestic minor sex trafficking of adolescent females in the United States.

Do we recognize human trafficking when we see it? Do law enforcers, police officers and other mandated reporters not only recognize but know what to do when a minor is being trafficked? This study explored whether mandated reporters who work with adolescent females, ages 10-17, recognize domestic minor trafficking and the associated risk factors. Results indicated that 60 percent of mandated reporters had no specific training for domestic minor sex trafficking, and 25 percent of reporters did not believe domestic sex trafficking existed in their communities.

Sex trafficking's push and pull factors

The psychological experience of child and adolescent sex trafficking in the United States: Trauma and resilience in survivors.

The awareness of human trafficking has significantly increased in the last decade. But what do we know about the stories of survivors? What are the push and pull factors of this lucrative market? The authors of this study examined the narratives of interviews with six survivors of child and adolescent sex trafficking to assess factors that influenced their ability to survive, leave the sex trade and reintegrate back into the community. Data was analyzed using an ecological systems framework. Themes of vulnerability, exposure to unsafe relationships and desensitization to prostitution emerged as risk factors. Concern for mental health symptoms, pregnancy, need for safe relationships and increased self-worth were noted as motivators for leaving the sex trade.

What can we do?

In the fight to end modern slavery, much has been accomplished. But, there is so much more to do and understand. The first step is learning what human trafficking is, what it really looks like, and who is at risk. Then, we much learn how to recognize, rescue, and prevent. This is how we work to end human trafficking worldwide... and in our own backyards.


Jenny Hwang is the Managing Director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College and co-editor of the forthcoming book Refugee Mental Health (American Psychological Association Books).

Shayne Moore is a Fellow at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, with a focus on human trafficking. She is the author of Refuse To Do Nothing: Finding Your Power to Abolish Modern Day Slavery and is a member of the WEA Global Human Trafficking Task Force.

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