Over the last two decades, commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) has gained recognition as a unique and complex form of child maltreatment. Informed by theories of racialized sexual stereotyping and capitalist commoditization, scholars have argued that certain lived experiences and sociodemographic factors contribute to a child’s vulnerability to exploitation. Certain subgroups including Black girls, children of immigrants, Native American/American Indian youth, children with disabilities, and children in foster care, are often identified in the literature as being disproportionally impacted by CSEC. However, these associations have not been empirically evaluated.
The paucity of research testing theorized risk and predictive factors associated with CSEC is due, in part, to poorly defined constructs of CSEC risk and victimization and to the field’s reliance on inadequate measurements, which do not distinguish between vulnerability and actual experiences of victimization. Our study aims to expand the emerging body of knowledge on CSEC through an exploratory analysis of CSEC risk and victimization indicators among the child welfare population.
Using statewide administrative data from California’s Child Welfare Services Case Management System (CWS/CMS), we identified all youth who were flagged in their client records as either having been at-risk (i.e., vulnerable to CSEC but no known experience of victimization) or a victim (i.e., actual experience of victimization) of commercial sexual exploitation between 2014 and 2018 (N=6,802). Logistic regression was used to examine whether youth were more likely to be identified as a victim compared to at-risk (0=At-risk Only, 1=Victim) based on ethnoracial grouping, primary language, sex assigned at birth, disability status, and whether the youth was under child welfare agency supervision at the time risk or victimization was identified.
Controlling for gender, primary language, case and disability status, Black youth were more likely to have been labeled as a victim than at-risk as compared with White children (AOR: 2.28; p=.001). Compared with both Black and White youth and controlling for covariates, no differences in identification patterns were observed for Hispanic, Asian or Native American/American Indian youth. Controlling for all other covariates, the odds of having a victim indicator documented were heightened among females (AOR: 3.54; p<.001), youth in open cases (AOR: 1.78; p<.001), and those with disabilities (AOR: 1.29; p=.004). In contrast, these odds were lower among youth whose primary language was not English (AOR: 0.73; p=.002).
California’s child welfare data offers a unique opportunity to begin teasing CSEC risk and victimization apart for an understudied subpopulation of children. Our analysis indicates that identification of CSEC risk versus actual victimization differs based on ethnoracial group, primary language, disability, gender and case status. One limitation is that it is not possible to determine the degree to which the observed differences reflect variation in victimization rates or differences in how workers categorize youth. This may reflect variability in policies, training, and subjective interpretation of presenting signs related to CSEC throughout the state. These findings have implications for future research on CSEC risk and victimization as well as child welfare practice.