Child Trafficking: Understanding, and Prevention

Poverty and family dysfunction are two things that many victims of child trafficking have in common. The problem of child trafficking is international, as those under age 18 comprised 28 percent of 17,000 victims identified by the United Nations in a recent study. It is a $32 billion industry, worldwide.

Trafficking is the procurement and presentation of an individual for sexual commerce by coercion or force, including those under age 18 who have no way to consent to sell sexual favors. More than 90 percent of such victims are female. The majority come from impoverished households where neglect, mental health, and drug abuse problems are common. Migrants are in particular danger of trafficking, prompting the U.S. government to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000 that gave them special status.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says that child trafficking increased 800 percent from 2010 to 2015.


One organization estimates that 300,000 underage persons (younger than age 18) in the U.S. are victims of child sex traffickers every year, with about 75 percent of girls enticed to join, often under false pretenses, over the internet. Their average age is 12.

Victims are often:

  • from backgrounds where alcohol and drug abuse is common;
  • from homes where sexual and verbal abuse is common;
  • have low self-esteem, making them vulnerable to seeking love and acceptance from strangers, often older men;
  • easily victimized over and over again due to low self-esteem;
  • runaways, and
  • unable to verbalize their situations even to doctors or teachers.

It is not uncommon for child traffickers to be pedophiles who use their own children to recruit other children to their use. A recent report said that children are “sold” in the U.S. more than 2.5 million times a year (using the average of 5 times a day) to average suburban men who are never caught or prosecuted.

Sex traffickers:

  • befriend vulnerable young people, offering food and shelter to runaways then exploiting them;
  • use violence and intimidation;
  • manipulate people to get what they want;
  • are pimps who collect money from customers to violate the victims;
  • enable child pornographers;
  • maybe average residents of a community who blend in;
  • drug their victims, and
  • are rarely caught and prosecuted due to society and the criminal justice system’s traditional attitudes toward promiscuous women.

Warning Signs

One prosecutor warns parents that young people may be victims without ever running away from home. If parents see a marked difference in their child’s behavior, attitudes, and even appearance, he or she may be a victim. Things, like losing interest in school work, receiving gifts of clothing and jewelry from an older adult, being secretive about their whereabouts, and even getting a tattoo, may all be signs of trafficking activity.

Mandatory Reporter

In almost every state, professionals like teachers, doctors, social workers, school nurses, and child care providers are required to report any evidence of child abuse, neglect, or exploitation such as trafficking.

Fighting Back

Resources in the fight against trafficking include a nonprofit, Thorn, created by actor Ashton Kuchter that uses technology to link victims to a network of people who help them break the bond. Another, See the Girl, was developed in Florida, a hotspot for abuse and exploitation, to improve treatment options for young women in the juvenile justice system.

Although state attorneys general got a popular website, to stop running sex ads that were a favorite place for pimps to advertise young children for sale, some in law enforcement say the problem has just moved to other locations, or that pimps use code words to indicate the availability of children on the site’s dating pages. The prosecutors alleged the site made more than 80 percent of it's $135 million profits off sex ads. In 2016 the website CEO was arrested for pimping minors. He made a plea deal with prosecutors in exchange for testimony against his colleagues.

One of the ways that law enforcement got to stop running sex ads was to convince Mastercard and Visa to deny charges for posting ads there (asserting that the companies were abetting child abuse).


Children who are induced into forced prostitution often suffer long-term psychological damage that impacts their ability to learn, future relationships, and self-esteem. This makes them vulnerable to further exploitation, even after they have returned to their homes and received treatment.

Recent Cases

In December 2018, a number of indictments were unsealed, naming 19 individuals for sex trafficking young women they had identified at a New York state residential treatment facility for at-risk youth. The caretakers and accomplices were risking life sentences for conspiracy and sex trafficking by coercion or force.