Risk Factors and Indicators

Though there is no standard profile of a child-trafficking victim, several risk factors make certain children more susceptible. Reports indicate that traffickers often target children and youths with a history of sexual abuse, dating violence, low self-esteem, and minimal social support.

Runaway and homeless youths—male, female, and transgender—are at particularly high risk for becoming victims, though some trafficked youths continue living at home and attending school. There is also a strong correlation between sexually exploited youths and childhood sexual abuse, chronic maltreatment and neglect, and otherwise unstable home environments. Research findings estimate that between 33 and 90 percent of victims of commercial child sexual exploitation have experienced these types of abuses.3 Evidence also suggests that lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBTQ) youths can be up to five times more likely than heterosexual youths to be victims of trafficking due to the increased susceptibility that comes with the feelings of rejection and alienation that are often experienced by LGBTQ youths.4

Possible risk factors associated with child trafficking include the following:

  • lack of personal safety
  • isolation
  • emotional distress
  • homelessness
  • poverty
  • family dysfunction
  • substance abuse
  • mental illness
  • learning disabilities
  • developmental delay
  • childhood sexual abuse
  • promotion of sexual exploitation by family members or peers
  • lack of social support

Social workers who provide services to these victims indicate that feelings of isolation and abandonment are often reported but that the lack of a support network increases the vulnerability to trafficking. It is important to note that many teenage girls may be at risk of being recruited into the commercial sex industry simply by virtue of their normal maturation process. Wanting to take risks, feeling misunderstood by parents, and seeking romantic relationships can increase girls’ susceptibility to the recruitment tactics of sex traffickers or pimps. Findings also suggest that low self-esteem accompanies school failure for girls, and the resulting sense of a lack of self-worth may make them more vulnerable to recruitment.5

However, once a student is victimized, identifying him or her can prove difficult for a variety of reasons: (1) the student’s reluctance to disclose the problem due to a sense of shame and fear; (2) the stigma associated with forced prostitution; (3) the power and control of the trafficker’s seduction and manipulation; and (4) the student’s inability to recognize that he or she is a victim and, therefore, is unwilling to seek help.

Possible behavioral indicators of a child sex trafficking victim include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • an inability to attend school on a regular basis and/or unexplained absences
  • frequently running away from home
  • references made to frequent travel to other cities
  • bruises or other signs of physical trauma, withdrawn behavior, depression, anxiety, or fear
  • lack of control over a personal schedule and/or identification or travel documents
  • hunger, malnourishment, or inappropriate dress (based on weather conditions or surroundings)
  • signs of drug addiction
  • coached or rehearsed responses to questions
  • a sudden change in attire, behavior, relationships, or material possessions (e.g., expensive items)
  • uncharacteristic promiscuity and/or references to sexual situations or terminology beyond age-specific norms
  • a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” who is noticeably older and/or controlling
  • an attempt to conceal scars, tattoos, or bruises
  • a sudden change in attention to personal hygiene
  • tattoos (a form of branding) displaying the name or moniker of a trafficker, such as “daddy”
  • hyperarousal or symptoms of anger, panic, phobia, irritability, hyperactivity, frequent crying, temper tantrums, regressive behavior, and/or clinging behavior
  • hypoarousal or symptoms of daydreaming, inability to bond with others, inattention, forgetfulness, and/or shyness

Additional behavioral indicators for labor trafficking include the following:

  • being unpaid, paid very little, or paid only through tips
  • being employed but not having a school-authorized work permit
  • being employed and having a work permit but clearly working outside the permitted hours for students
  • owing a large debt and being unable to pay it off
  • not being allowed breaks at work or being subjected to excessively long work hours
  • being overly concerned with pleasing an employer and/or deferring personal or educational decisions to a boss
  • not being in control of his or her own money
  • living with an employer or having an employer listed as a student’s caregiver
  • a desire to quit a job but not being allowed to do so

3 Williamson, C., & Prior, M. (2009). Domestic minor sex trafficking: A network of underground players in the Midwest. Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, 2(1), 46–61.

4 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children, Youth and Families. (2014). Guidance to states and services on addressing human trafficking of children and youth in the United States. Washington, DC: Author. Available at http://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/cb/acyf_human_trafficking_guidance.pdf

5 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. (2009). Human trafficking into and within the United States: A review of the literature. Washington, DC: Author. Available at http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/07/humantrafficking/litrev/