Indicators

Common indicators of sex and labor trafficking are listed in Figure 2.33 Note that while the two sets of indicators are not identical, they do overlap; indicators are present among both sex and labor trafficking victims in the center of the figure.

Figure 2. Indicators of Child Sex and Labor Trafficking

A VENN diagram showing a circle with Sex Trafficking ont he left, a circle with Labor Trafficking on the right, and an area of overlap in the middle.
  • Approached by a trafficker or engaged with people involved in trafficking
  • Multiple sex partners
  • Frequent travel to other cities or out of state
  • Frequently seen at hotels/motels or other sites where commercial sex exploitation is known to occur
  • Sudden decline in academic performance
  • Change in behavior or relationships
  • New phones, clothes, or other material possessions
  • Change in personal hygiene
  • Uncharacteristic promiscuity and/or references to sexual situations or terminology beyond age-specific norms, highly sexualized online persona, or possession of unexplained sexual paraphernalia
  • A “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” who is noticeably older and/or controlling
  • Tattoos suggesting “ownership” by trafficker
  • Has large amounts of cash or prepaid credit cards
  • Exhaustion, depression, or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Poor physical health or malnourishment
  • Physical trauma, such as scars or bruises
  • Untreated medical issues, such as sexually transmitted infections, occupational injuries, or exposure
  • Lacks control over money, ID, travel documents, or personal schedule
  • Exhibits self-destructive behavior
  • Coached or rehearsed responses to questions
  • Works but is unpaid, paid very little, or paid only through tips
  • Accrues debt to employer while at work, or has responsibility for working off a large debt
  • Recruited for work with promise of easy money
  • Not allowed to quit a job
  • Employed but doesn’t have a school-authorized work permit, if required by state
  • Has a school-authorized work permit if required, but works outside the permitted hours for students
  • Defers personal or educational decisions to an employer
  • Has more chores or responsibilities than are typical or age appropriate
  • Pays family rent, food, clothes, and so on, or lives in inadequate quarters
  • Lives with “parents” who are not biological or legal guardians, or has employer listed as caregiver
  • Has received threats of harm to self, friends, or family; deportation; or reports to law enforcement

The indicators in Figure 2 are common in sex and labor trafficking situations. It is important to remember, however, that some students who have been trafficked won’t show any of these signs. In fact, some students affected by trafficking see school as a safe haven where they can participate in normal peer activities and excel in their academic work.

For me, if in my early years teachers would have reported the abuse and neglect I was receiving from my parents, I would have possibly been less susceptible to my trafficker later on in my teens. The sexual and physical abuse as a child left me vulnerable. It literally groomed me for the experience. I was so numb from my previous abusive experiences that the trafficking experiences didn’t seem so painful.

Whether or not strong indicators of trafficking are present, identifying students being exploited can be difficult because students may not readily acknowledge their circumstances. Students may be

  • reluctant to disclose the abuse due to shame or fear,
  • still under the control of their trafficker, or
  • unable to recognize themselves as a victim.34

Knowing that students may find disclosure difficult underscores the need to provide specialized trafficking training to school personnel, especially personnel most likely to see red flags or most in contact with groups of students at higher risk because of their job functions (e.g., specialized instructional support personnel).


  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Resources: Common health issues seen in victims of Human trafficking. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/documents/orr/health_problems_seen_in_traffick_victims.pdf; Polaris Project. (2011). Educators and human trafficking: In-depth review. Polaris Project. https:// humantraffickinghotline.org/sites/default/files/In%20Depth%20Review%20for%20Educators.pdf; Polaris Project. (2011). Tools for educators. Polaris Project. https://humantraffickinghotline.org/sites/default/files/Educator%20Assessment%20Tool.pdf; Polaris Project. (2017). The typology of modern slavery: Defining sex and labor trafficking in the United States. Polaris Project. https://polarisproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Polaris-Typology-of-Modern-Slavery-1.pdf; American Counseling Association. (n.d.). Human trafficking awareness for school counselors. Counseling Connection. https://www.counseling.org/docs/default-source/school-counseling/ ht-awareness-schoolcounselorconnection.pdf?sfvrsn=ba7b562c_2; National Human Trafficking Hotline. (n.d.). Recognizing the signs. https://humantraffickinghotline.org/human-trafficking/recognizing-signs; de Vries, I., Kafafian, M., Goggin, K., Bouchard, E., Goldfarb, S., & Farrell, A. (2020). Enhancing the identification of commercial sexual exploitation among a population of high-risk youths using predictive regularization models. Child Maltreatment, 25(3), 318–327. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077559519889178
  2. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. (2020). Child sex trafficking. https://www.missingkids.org/theissues/trafficking#riskfactors