Methods: We conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 270 youth receiving shelter-based services in three major U.S. cities - Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Washington DC. We use the Human Trafficking Interview and Assessment Measure (HTIAM-10) to retrospectively detect and identify victims of human trafficking, including sex trafficking, by evoking stories regarding their sexual exploitation experiences that would indicate whether they had been victims of trafficking. A second tool, the Child Welfare Supplemental Survey developed for this project, captured maltreatment experiences, child welfare system involvement, living situation, preparation for independent living, and support systems, among those who engaged in any commercial sex act, including sex trafficking. Quantitative analyses were used to assess differences between victims and non-victims, and qualitative methods provided insight into personal experiences and trajectories.
Results: Nineteen percent of homeless youth experienced human trafficking, including 17% who were sex trafficked. Of the 44 who were sex trafficked, the majority (71%) were trafficked as minors, and significant differences suggest potential risk factors. Compared to youth who were not sex trafficked, victims were more likely to be bisexual, female or transgender, Latino, and have dropped out of high school.
We also learned about significant life events preceding their becoming a victim of sex trafficking. Compared to non-victims, they were twice as likely to have experienced maltreatment as children, most prominently, sexual abuse, and were less likely to have a caring adult in their lives. Sex trafficking victims were typically recruited very early in their homelessness, many within their first week or first night. In addition, several were trafficked through online forums, like Backpage.com, that have become the target of recent legislation like the recently signed Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act.
Implications: This study provides among the first credible estimates of sex trafficking prevalence among a vulnerable population, and points to significant risk factors. Homeless LGBT, among the most marginalized and vulnerable groups, are at uniquely high risk of being sex trafficked and additional outreach and inclusion efforts are clearly necessary, especially true for those who have been maltreated. The study also demonstrated the importance of being in school, more than education itself, as a source of support and resilience that reduced trafficking rates. In addition, surveyed youth identified the presence of supportive adults as critical to avoiding sex trafficking, and creating those relationships should be a priority, especially in the child welfare system where governments have more ability to effect change.