Home  |   Subscribe  |   Resources  |   Reprints  |   Writers' Guidelines

E-News Exclusive

Homeless Youths at High Risk for Sex Trafficking

By Lindsey Getz

In an effort to better understand the prevalence of human trafficking among homeless youths, The Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research at the University of Pennsylvania recently joined forces with Covenant House, an agency dedicated to helping homeless youths, and Loyola University’s Modern Slavery Research Project to conduct a first-of-its-kind study. Between February 2014 and March 2017, researchers from the three organizations interviewed nearly 1,000 homeless youths across 13 cities. The findings have been staggering but have also helped shed some light on the issue—including which children are most at risk.

The findings from this largest-ever combined sample of homeless youths in the United States and Canada revealed that nearly one-fifth are victims of human trafficking, including those exploited for sex, labor, or both. In the overall study, researchers found that 20% of the interviewed youths were victims of human trafficking with 17% having been trafficked for sex, which entails all commercial sex acts that involved force, fraud, or coercion, or if a victim is under the age of 18. The researchers also found that while lesbian, gay, bisexual, and pansexual youth only accounted for 20% of the respondents, they accounted for 38% of the sex-trafficking victims. Transgender youth were particularly vulnerable.

“The numbers are quite overwhelming,” says Debra Schilling Wolfe, MEd, executive director of the Field Center at Penn, who served as coprincipal investigator alongside Johanna K.P. Greeson, PhD, MSS, MLSP, an assistant professor in Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice. The Field Center interviewed nearly 300 homeless youths in Philadelphia; Washington, DC; and Phoenix for their part in this collaborative project. Their sample comprised homeless youths seeking assistance at Covenant House shelters in Philadelphia and Washington, DC, as well as other organizations in Phoenix.

While the numbers are already high, Wolfe says she fears that the situation may be even more dire considering the interviews were conducted only with youths who were already seeking services. It didn’t account for youths that were unassisted on the street or “couch surfing” in people’s homes.

“Not only did we not have access to youths that weren’t seeking services—but we also didn’t have access to youths who may currently be in a situation of sex trafficking,” Wolfe says. “Therefore, we understand that the numbers may be even higher than we were able to determine through our methodology.”

The interview criteria were also limiting in that all subjects had to be older than 18 at the time of the interview due to consent issues. They also had to be English speaking.

“We interviewed all youths that were available and willing to meet with us,” Wolfe explains. “We gave them complete anonymity by just referring to subjects through a numbering system. That allowed them to feel safer about telling us their history. Their stories were profound. Of the young people we spoke to, two-thirds of the females reported they’d been offered money for sex at some point—and of that total, 22% had it happen on the very first night of being homeless.”

Digging Beneath the Surface
In addition to looking at the extent of human trafficking among homeless youths, this research dug deeper in looking at some of the histories of the victims. This extra component of the research focused on the child-welfare-to-child-trafficking pipeline, Wolfe says. By adding a child-welfare-focused second supplemental survey (which was given to respondents who acknowledged being victims of sex trafficking or engaging in the sex trade to survive), researchers were able to determine some of the risk factors for human trafficking.

The survey asked questions related to child abuse history, the number of foster homes in which a respondent was placed, and resilience factors, Wolfe says. Field Center researchers found that a staggering 95% of youths who were sex trafficked reported a history of child maltreatment and 49% of those indicated a history of childhood sexual abuse. Of those who were sex trafficked, 39% identified as LGBTQ.

“Maltreatment among homeless youths is definitely a risk factor for sex trafficking,” Greeson says. “Since social workers frequently come in contact with young people who are homeless and who have been maltreated, this is an instance where paying closer attention to these youths and their experiences could be vitally important.”

Wolfe says that other important findings include the fact that 58% of those who did not have a caring adult in their lives were sex trafficked. Wolfe says a caring adult—who doesn’t have to be a parent but could also be a teacher, a counselor, or any other adult they identify as truly caring about them—adds a layer of protection that just could prevent youth from a future of sex trafficking. In addition, Wolfe says 67% of the individuals who had been sex trafficked also reported not graduating from high school.

“There is good evidence there that if we can keep young people in school longer then we can lower their risk,” Wolfe says. “We did not find the same correlation with students who had gone back for a GED. There is definitely a protective factor in terms of keeping kids in school and having a caring adult in their life.”

How Social Workers Can Help
These findings present a lot of opportunities for social workers to help. One of the most important actions that social workers can take is to learn the signs of potential trafficking victimization/exploitation and to always maintain vigilance about them in their practice, Greeson says.

“Some of the red flags or potential indicators include poor mental health or abnormal behavior—such as being fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, and/or nervous or paranoid,” Greeson says. “They also include poor physical health and exhibiting a lack of control, such as having few or no personal possessions.”

Greeson says that social workers who are in practice with young people can also ask about caring adults in their lives and potentially help nourish those connections, since these relationships can be protective against adverse experiences like human trafficking.

“We know that the presence of nonparental caring adults in the lives of all children and youth is protective and especially important for those who are marginalized and/or at risk,” Greeson adds. “Think back over your life. Can you identify natural mentors who believed in you? How did they support you and contribute to your achievements and successes? Often these relationships span over time and weather the storms of life.”

In addition, in looking at the issue of homelessness, in general, Wolfe adds that there is a wealth of opportunity for social workers to have an impact. Since homelessness and sex trafficking are so closely linked, with the findings showing that one out of five homeless youth become victims of sex trafficking, it’s important that social workers are focusing their efforts there.

“As social workers, we need to do a better job preparing young people for adulthood,” Wolfe says. “As a system, we do a terrible job when it comes to aging out. We’re launching our foster youths into homelessness. But extending care from age 18 to 21 only delays the problem. The real solution lies in better preparation. We must ensure that our young people have the skills and the resources to survive on their own and to support themselves so that they feel like they have better options than just being exploited.”

Wolfe says one quote has really stuck with her since interviewing homeless youths. A young person told her that when she was younger she was raped and molested and that made her feel as though it was OK to go out and have sex with different people since this experience had happened to her when it was out of her control.

“So often the victims of sexual abuse need to relearn and change the narrative of their own lives in order for them to take ownership of their bodies,” Wolfe says. “Just because they were molested, they must know that nobody has the license to touch them. Their bodies are valuable and they have a choice.”

At the end of the day, Wolfe says if she would like social workers to come away with one simple message from these findings, it would be this: Homeless youths are at a very high risk and very vulnerable to becoming victims of sex trafficking. No matter what area of practice you’re in or what stage you might be reaching these individuals at, there are ways you can help. From ensuring today’s youths are not tomorrow’s victims to being able to recognize some of the signs that an individual is already a victim, there are many ways that social workers can have an impact.

— Lindsey Getz is a Royersford, PA-based freelance writer.