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Characterizing Minor Victims of Trafficking in Florida

Examining how child characteristics and life events increase the risk of victimization

Human trafficking is a complex and multidimensional issue, involving the exploitation of, and trade in, men, women, and children. Traffickers use force, coercion, or fraud to get victims to work or to perform sex acts against their will. It happens in the United States and abroad and does not, as the term might suggest, necessarily involve crossing state or national borders.

In the United States, minors under the age 18 who are engaged in commercial sex are defined by law as victims of human trafficking, even if they are not being forced or coerced.

Although attention to domestic minor trafficking has grown in the past decade, little is known about the number and characteristics of these victims. Better information can support more effective strategies to prevent trafficking, provide services to its victims, and prosecute the perpetrators.

Researchers and experts on vulnerable children have long noted that young people who are trafficking victims often have histories of child abuse and neglect. In addition, shared risk factors for both experiences include poverty, and dysfunctional homes that may include parental substance abuse or mental illness. As a result, many children who are trafficking victims have also been involved with the child welfare system. Studying the experiences of these children can help us understand the circumstances that contribute to their trafficking victimization.

Identifying Patterns of Risk and Victimization among Children in Florida’s Child Welfare System

In 2014, with funding from the National Institute of Justice, we began a study that aims to better define and understand risk factors that increase the odds a child will become a victim of trafficking. Florida was chosen for this study because its child welfare agency has been a leader in identifying, investigating, and documenting trafficking victimization among children.

Our experts are analyzing data from Florida’s child welfare system and studying how child characteristics and life events—such as histories of abuse and neglect, episodes of running away, foster care, and group home care—are associated with trafficking. Patterns found in these analyses will help child welfare agencies identify children who are most at risk of trafficking, or who are already victims but haven’t been identified as such.

Using Data About Minor Victims of Trafficking to Inform Policies and Programs

Preliminary analyses found that children who are the subject of trafficking allegations are more likely to be female, are older, and are more likely to have been the subject of investigations of abuse and neglect, particularly for sexual abuse. They are also much more likely to have been placed in foster care or group home care, and to have run away from care, compared to children with other types of allegations. 

Additional analyses and statistical models, to be completed in late 2017, will focus on more complex patterns. Analysts will examine which combinations of characteristics and events are most frequently found among trafficking victims, and how the timing of events may affect risk of victimization.

Ultimately, this study will yield data on minor victim trafficking that can be used by practitioners, policymakers, and researchers. It will generate statewide data that significantly improves on the estimates currently available—including the number and characteristics of minors identified as trafficked or at risk of trafficking.

With research-based information to help the state identify those most at risk, Florida can continue its efforts to prevent victimization of children currently in the child welfare system and inform its policies and programs to halt trafficking of minors.

Looking beyond the State of Florida, our findings will support empirically informed recommendations for service development, program planning, and policymaking within the fields of criminal justice, child welfare, and juvenile justice at federal, state, local, and tribal levels.