Prevention – Just a Pipe Dream for Sex-Trafficked Youth?
By Terri Galvan, professor at American Public University
Running away from home or being “thrown-away” by a family is a tremendous hardship on youth, as most are ill-equipped to make it on their own. Even so, there are an estimated 1.68 million runaway or homeless youth under 18 in cities throughout the nation. Reasons include severe family conflict, economic hardship, and abandonment due to pregnancy, substance abuse, or sexual orientation.
In addition, up to one-half of youth in foster care run away at some point. While the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) provides support to address youth homelessness, it is insufficient to prevent sex-traffickers from preying on these youth. It is easy to see how this group can be lured into prostitution. They often have deep-seated needs and a very weak foundation to meet them on their own. Domestic sex-traffickers capitalize on this type of vulnerability.
In the report, Who Pays the Price?, Debra Boyer explains that a scared 14-year-old girl simply does not have the ability to outthink a 26-year old who is offering love, money, and the ability to take care of her. Given the number of runaway and homeless youth, traffickers seem to have found a steady supply of potential victims.
Strengthening the Child Welfare Response to Human Trafficking Act of 2013 (H.R. 1732) is one step in the direction of providing protection to youth at risk of being exploited by sex-traffickers and it can be a tool to help local law enforcement prioritize on this vulnerable group. The Act requires that agencies report to law enforcement agencies within 72 hours the identity of each child who has been provided with welfare services that is now missing, has been abducted, or is identified as a victim for entry into the National Crime Information Center database.
Reporting youth who have been victims of sex-trafficking while under the care of child-welfare agencies, especially those being groomed by a trafficker, can help prevent further entrapment. Law enforcement will have information that will not likely come from the victims—as many are manipulated into believing the false promises of a trafficker and quickly become distrustful of service providers and law enforcement. The NCIC database is a clearinghouse of data that can be used by any criminal justice agency nationwide, 24 hours a day, offering information whenever, and wherever, law enforcement interacts with a potential victim.
Although running away is a common trait for the majority of prostituted youth, the fact that many foster youth run away multiple times and return voluntarily, camouflages the serous risk that some face. Requiring mandatory reporting will ensure that the risk is assessed, before returning voluntarily ceases to be an option.
After all, victims are chosen by sex-traffickers because they are invisible to their families and to the community. Accurate information can increase the likelihood that a runaway will be returned to a supportive place before they become trapped in prostitution. The Safe Harbor Act also requires the development of trainings, strategies, and procedures for collaboration that best serve the needs of this population. All of this is a step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, this legislation is not expected to be acted upon this year. However, it does show that steps can be taken to help prevent domestic sex-trafficking of youth. In the future, prevention might not be just a pipe dream.
About the Author: Terri Galvan is an adjunct instructor at American Public University System, teaching courses in government and public policy. She has worked extensively in the non-profit sector and has developed successful programs to increase positive housing outcomes and the financial literacy of homeless women. In addition to teaching, she currently serves as the executive director of A Community Against Sexual Harm (CASH), a non-profit organization in Sacramento, Calif. that works with victims of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking.
Terri received her B.A. from Chapman University where she majored in Social Science and her Master of Public Policy degree from the University of Southern California, specializing in urban and social policy. Her graduate research focused on developing community capacity in impoverished neighborhoods. Terri is a Pi Alpha Alpha Honor Society Member.