Why are Some Children More Vulnerable to Child Sex Trafficking?

Child trafficking is a complex issue that involves many forms. No child is immune from trafficking but some are at a higher risk. To answer why some children are more vulnerable to trafficking we need to understand how vulnerabilities open the door for offenders.

First, let’s have a refresher on the definition of child sex trafficking. Trafficking is the practice of exploiting people, including children, as commodities in conditions of sexual and labor servitude. Human trafficking occurs when a person benefits from another’s labor, services or sex acts. Some examples of child trafficking include but are not limited to:

  • Forced sex work on the streets or in a residence, club, hotel, spa or massage parlor
  • Online commercial sexual exploitation
  • Exotic dancing or stripping
  • Factory work
  • Nannying

Who do Traffickers Target?

Traffickers often target children when the offender can fill the role of a trusted adult who is otherwise lacking in a child’s life. Trafficking involves the exploitation of a person’s vulnerabilities, and perpetrators use tactics such as manipulation and grooming to gain loyalty from a child. Traffickers do not provide a stable or safe home, yet through conditioning, threats, and/or coercion, traffickers create an environment in which children may feel their only option is to oblige the trafficker.

One example of this is when a child runs away from home. Traffickers use this opportunity to provide a child with something they do not otherwise have, whether it be a safe haven, housing, access to drugs, or material objects. Runaways are often already leaving an unstable home. Running away or being kicked out of their home makes the child more susceptible to falling prey to a perpetrator’s manipulation.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), in 2020 there were 17,000 reports of child sex trafficking cases reported across all 50 states, and 26,500 children were reported to NCMEC as runaways. According to Love146, an organization which provides education and prevention training for child sex trafficking, no one truly knows the number of child trafficking incidents because the issue is so complex and underreported. Locally, at the Child Advocacy Center of Niagara, 39 cases were referred to our Safe Harbour program for reports or concerns of child trafficking.

It is important to note that a large population of runaways are of those in the LGBTQ+ community. A lack of acceptance at home, family rejection, or absence of a support system can cause children to look for acceptance elsewhere. So often LGBTQ+ children searching for love and acceptance leave home, only to become homeless, without their basic needs being met. This may lead children to seek out unsafe sources to fill those needs, including shelter, food, and sometimes drugs.

Another vulnerability to trafficking is system involvement, such as children in the foster care system. According to Child Welfare Information Gateway, studies consistently show that 50-90% of child sex trafficking victims have been involved in the welfare system. Many children in foster care have been exposed to abuse, neglect, or have been witness to violence. These factors add to the instability created by their displacement and puts these children at a higher risk for trafficking. Traffickers again use this opportunity to target the vulnerabilities of these youth.

While instability is sometimes unavoidable, it is important to recognize this risk factor. If you are caring for a child in foster care, knowing the red flags and vulnerabilities for trafficking can help you know what to look for and discuss the issue with your family. Children who have been physically or sexually abused in the past, as well as children who have been neglected, are at a higher risk for exploitation as well. Those who have experienced violence or have been in a home where substance abuse is present are also more vulnerable.

Runaway children and those in foster care are not the only children found to be more vulnerable to exploitation such as trafficking. There are many factors to consider, and while no single factor means a child will be trafficked, they do create an increased risk. Some examples include:

  • History of alcohol or substance abuse
  • Mental health diagnosis
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Social media risk taking
  • Risky behavior
  • Juvenile justice system involvement
  • Low self-esteem or self-worth
  • Lack of resources and natural supports

Perfect Storm

When a child is vulnerable to trafficking, it does not necessarily mean they will be a victim of trafficking, it only means that they are at higher risk. Perpetrators are able to identify vulnerable children and seek them out; not just in places they may physically visit, but also on social media. Vulnerable children with unmonitored access to social media are easy targets for grooming and being approached by perpetrators.

According to RAINN, grooming is a set of manipulative behaviors that perpetrators use in order to gain access to potential victims and coerce them into agreeing to abuse. The grooming process happens over time and makes the child feel they can trust and confide in the perpetrator. Traffickers use grooming on vulnerable children as well, and scan social media to see what a child is looking for, such as a job, money, or attention, and then works to meet that need to gain the trust of the child. Perpetrators also attempt to feign a common interest to make themselves feel relatable and trustworthy to children.

It’s Important to Know the Red Flags

It is important to remember that just like with child sexual abuse, no child is immune from abuse or trafficking, but spotting the red flags of trafficking can help us protect children from traffickers and prevent abuse from happening. Below is a non-comprehensive list of things to look out for in children:

  • Is under 18 years old and performs commercial sex acts (trading sex for something of value)
  • Is excessively monitored by an adult who is not a parent or guardian, such as an older partner or “sponsor” who claims to provide for their upbringing and needs, or who insists on speaking for them or being present at all times
  • Detached or is suddenly isolated from majority of family members and friends
  • Is unable to give answers about their schedules or living and work locations/conditions; appears to possibly work and live in the same building or location
  • Has numerous inconsistencies in his/her story; contradictory personal information (age, place of birth, family life)
  • Noticeable change in dress, jewelry, hair, or nails without explainable source of income
  • Shows signs of physical or sexual abuse (bruises, cuts, burns, jumpy, malnourishment)
  • Suffers from substance abuse problems (alcohol and/or drugs)
  • Multiple sexually transmitted infections or abortions
  • Possession of hotel key cards or cell phones that the youth cannot explain the origin of
  • Sudden presence of an older romantic partner, especially if they are controlling or the youth appears afraid of them
  • Tattoo with a name that is not their own or that the youth is reluctant to explain
  • Social media risk taking or speaking with strangers online
  • Multiple instances of running away or being kicked out

What to do if you Suspect Trafficking?

If you suspect a child is experiencing any kind of trafficking and is in immediate danger, call 911. You can also contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline to report a tip, request services, or get help. The hotline can be reached at 1-888-373-7888, or text “help” to BeFree (233733).

The Child Advocacy Center of Niagara also hosts the Safe Harbour Project, which aims to partner with youth who have experienced trafficking or are at-risk of trafficking to develop a safety plan, provide basic needs, reduce risk and harm, and provide linkages to services.

For more resources, please visit the links below:

Child Advocacy Center of Niagara

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children