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Improving Child Trafficking Victim Identification and Services for Dual System-Involved Youth

Evaluating the characteristics of child trafficking victims involved in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems to improve identification and interventions

Over the last two decades, many states have made efforts to improve the identification of child trafficking victims and divert them from the juvenile justice system to the child welfare system.

Children already involved in both systems, known as dual system-involved children or dual status youth, are vulnerable to becoming victims of human trafficking due to several risk factors, including abuse and neglect, substance use, and growing up in poverty. However, many dual system-involved youth have experiences or allegations of trafficking prior to system involvement. This underscores the need to better understand the characteristics and outcomes of dual system-involved children who have experienced human trafficking prior to system entry and/or after system entry. It also highlights the importance of validating existing screening tools used by youth serving agencies in order to improve victim identification and connect victims with services.

Providing research for child trafficking victim identification, services, and prevention among system-involved youth

With support from the National Institutes of Justice, RTI researchers are conducting a study, Addressing Human Trafficking among Juvenile Justice- and Child Welfare-Involved Youth, that uses linked records from Florida's Department of Children and Families (DFC), Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), and Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) with the following goals:

  1. Validating DCF and DJJ’s jointly developed, 14-part Human Trafficking Screening Tool (HTST)
  2. Describing the characteristics of children with trafficking allegations involved in both systems 
  3. Describing their subsequent patterns of child welfare, juvenile justice, and adult criminal legal system involvement following a human trafficking allegation.

Florida provides a rare opportunity to examine these characteristics because DFC, DJJ, and FDLE have a long-standing data sharing relationship, allowing us to track child outcomes across systems and over time.

The project aims to contribute to:

  • Efficient and accurate identification of human sex and labor trafficking victims among system-involved children.
  • Enhancing service responses to trafficked children by increasing understanding of their shared and unique characteristics while under system supervision.
  • Strengthening prevention efforts for at-risk children by identifying DCF, DJJ, and child experiences that are predictive of initial and subsequent trafficking allegations.

We began by investigating how well the HTST effectively identifies trafficking risk or trafficking victimization among minors screened by DJJ, and which of the 14 parts of the HTST were most predictive of verified allegations of trafficking. Data included lifetime records of 3,609 children born between 1996 and 2002 that were served by either system and were screened using the HTST.

We found that the HTST has good to excellent ability to identify human trafficking risk or human trafficking victimization among dual system-involved children. However, additional instructions on how to use the tool and training in evidence-based indicators of human trafficking would help ensure more consistent application of the tool by agency staff.

We also found trends in the presence of certain characteristics among children with human trafficking allegations when predicting prior system involvement, including certain demographic markers and type of trafficking. For example, at the time of first trafficking allegation, Black children were more likely than White children to have previously been involved with both DJJ and DCF than DCF only. This highlights the need to prioritize diverting Black children away from punitive juvenile justice involvement and to instead facilitate access to comprehensive services. Separately, children who experienced labor trafficking abuse allegations were less likely than those who experienced sex trafficking to be involved with either system.

Additionally, we identified certain characteristics and experiences that increase the risk of initial and subsequent allegations of human trafficking:

  • Greater number of times the child was reported missing
  • Greater number of prior DJJ offenses
  • Prior neglect or physical, sexual, or psychological abuse
  • Being a girl
  • Being a child who is black.

Understanding both the strengths and limitations of Florida's HTST and the shared and unique characteristics of system-involved trafficking victims is vital for effective victim identification and service provision.

Our findings can also be used to develop appropriate training for system staff and inform services that facilitate healing and recovery for child trafficking victims.

Learn more about RTI's research in human sex and labor trafficking.