November is National Runaway Prevention Month! Youth who have run away from home are extremely vulnerable to victimization and make especially attractive targets for commercial sexual exploitation. For our fall newsletter, we’ll be taking a look at why that is, and how data can be used by service providers to help youth break out of the cycle.
When it comes to commercial sexual exploitation (CSE), exact data is hard to come by. Shame is a powerful motivator, and many are afraid to come forward due to fear of judgement, isolation, or retaliation by traffickers or the legal system. But thanks to dedicated researchers and increasing public awareness, we do have data that can shed light on just how connected CSE and unstable housing really are. So while we’ll never know exactly how many individuals are involved in CSE, we can use the data we do have to guide us in assisting people who do come to us.
Provider Spotlight ~ National Runaway Safe Line
National Runaway Safeline is an amazing hotline and network of resources for teens and their guardians, designed to prevent youth homelessness and reduce the harm teens go through as they’re experiencing it. With bi-partisan and presidential support from then-President Bush, they started National Runaway Prevention Month (NRPM) in 2002, creating a month-long campaign from a week-long event.⁴
They can be reached for confidential help via phone, text, IM, and email, making their services extremely accessible. See their website https://www.1800runaway.org/ for contact info, a forum, handouts, and more!
SO HOW DO WE RESPOND?
The best way to respond to anyone in crisis is to listen to them when they tell you what they need. In many studies, including the 2013 and 2016 studies cited above, the youth were simply looking to have their basic needs met. Needs like housing, crisis intervention, mental health care, food, clothing, steady income, and health care are all needs that social service agencies like ours work to provide. And although not everyone can provide every service, with strong teamwork, wrap-around services can change a youth’s trajectory.
When we do presentations, we often explain exploitation like this: if all of the individual’s needs were met, would they still choose to engage in that sexual activity? If not, that’s a red flag that might indicate force, fraud, or coercion is creating an exploitative situation. Our agency provides survivor advocacy, which can look like a lot of different things. We go with people to medical appointments, meet them in juvenile detention or jail to help make safety plans, walk with them through the legal process, and so much more.
But our program isn’t built to provide housing, mental health treatment, or employment. That’s why we love our community partners! They’re incredible people that can meet us and work with us to create great outcomes for CSE survivors. If you’re a provider in town, make it a point to recognize what services you can’t provide, and reach out to organizations that can. By strengthening that circle, we can come together to provide what CSE survivors are asking for, which enables them to decide if they want to continue in sex work of their own accord (if they are over 18 and it’s legal where they live) or leave it for something else.
*We follow all mandatory reporting laws, and report any suspected child or vulnerable adult abuse to CPS/APS.
Identifying and Supporting At-Risk Individuals
When working in social and community services, it's important to take into account that not all individuals are equally at-risk of experiencing sexual exploitation. In this quarter's newsletter, we're going to outline different risk-factors and how those can lead to exploitation. We'll also discuss how service providers can support these at-risk individuals and how they can be referred to services with Real Life Advocacy.
While people of all genders, races, sexualities and socioeconomic status can fall victim to sexual exploitation, certain demographic groups have higher rates of victimization than others. Let's take a look at some particularly at-risk groups below;
Foster Children, especially those who have aged out of the system, are at a higher risk for sexual exploitation. Due to the alarmingly high rates of victimization, the foster care system is often referred to as a “trafficking pipeline”. Conservative estimates report that 60% of people being trafficked have been in the child welfare system¹. There is also evidence that up to 98% of trafficking survivors were child welfare recipients².
Homeless Youth, specifically LGBTQ+ youth, are frequently coerced into sexual exploitation. Over a third (33.4%) of heterosexual homeless youth and over half (58.7%!) of homeless LGBTQ+ youth have been trafficked. Due to their increased vulnerability, LGBTQ+ youth are 7.4 times more likely than heterosexual youth to experience sexual violence³.
Ethnic Minority Groups are also at high risk. In general, the more disenfranchised the group is from the group in power (majority group), the higher their vulnerability becomes. Data collected by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (KCPAO) between 2011–2016 shows that 52% of child trafficking victims were African American, although only 7% of the general population in King County was African American⁴.
Historically Oppressed Groups show higher victimization rates as well. In the same King County study mentioned above, it was reported that 84% of sexual exploitation victims were female, yet census data shows only 49.9% of King County’s population being female.
Poverty can also play a large role in victimization. Because trafficking is often forced upon a person by economic necessity, people living in poverty experience higher rates of exploitation. Common reasons for entry into trafficking include: family connection to sex work, survival sex (exchanging sex acts for basic needs), and desperation for a “better life”.
So how can I help?If you are an individual who frequently works within these high-risk demographics, you should always be mindful that the people you interact with may be in danger of becoming a trafficking victim. Watch for warning signs, such as frequently needing medical care, malnutrition, physical trauma, and sleep deprivation. Other indicators could include evidence that the person is living outside their means (lots of cash, expensive clothing or grooming habits), reports of many sexual partners, or being unwilling/unable to answer questions for themselves. If you suspect that someone is currently involved, or has previously been involved, in sexual exploitation, don’t respond to them with judgement or shame. The best way to build trust is to listen and believe survivors with an open mind.
You can call the Emergency Support Shelter’s Real Life Advocacy program at (360) 703-3762, Monday through Friday, 9-5. If calling after hours, please leave a message and someone will respond as soon as possible. We provide a variety of services for survivors, their families, and persons at risk. We also provide community education and consultations.
If you need immediate assistance after-hours, you can contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline for 24 hour support at 1-888-373-7888
Advocates welcome individuals of all ages and genders. Our services are free & confidential*. An advocate can help you with staying safe, finding resources, and can provide a judgement free environment to talk about what you’re going through. We can also provide free safer sex kits, (condoms, the morning after pill, pregnancy tests, etc.). Contact Katie at 360.703.3762 ext. 26, KatieW@esshelter.com or
Caleb at ext. 16, CalebL@esshelter.com.
*We follow all mandatory reporting laws, and report any suspected child or vulnerable adult abuse to CPS/APS
Advocates are available to provide information and education about how to recognize common signs of sex trafficking to schools, businesses, organizations, churches, etc. to help you learn how to safely respond and report to police and/or the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
To request a free presentation, contact Katie at KatieW@esshelter.com
or 360.703.3762 ext. 26.
To report suspected trafficking or to get assistance, you can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline 24/7 at 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP to 233733.
¹ Why Human Traffickers Prey on Foster Care Kids, Dawn Post (2015)
² Addressing Child Sex Trafficking from a Child Welfare Perspective, Casey Family Programs (2014)
³ LGBT Homeless, National Coalition for the Homeless (2009)
⁴ Systemic Oppression, Inequity, & Sex Trafficking, Kim Merrikin (2018) https://iwantrest.com/blog/systemic-oppression-inequity-and-sex-trafficking/