Trafficking Is Child Abuse

Despite the pervasiveness of child trafficking in the United States, many communities still deny it is a problem. Child trafficking victims are stigmatized and sometimes arrested as lawbreakers themselves. Often, they are shunted out of mainstream education settings to alternative placements, where they are thought to pose a risk to others. But awareness is changing. Increasingly, states and communities recognize that trafficking is a widespread and insidious problem requiring a coordinated response. The evolving understanding that trafficking is child abuse has allowed educators, law enforcement, and social service providers to minimize judgment, provide wraparound services, prevent revictimization, and focus on the safety and well-being of students who have experienced trafficking.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 was a turning point in the nationwide shift toward rightfully seeing children who experience trafficking as victims. The TVPA defined sex and labor trafficking and said that inducing a child under 18 to engage in commercial sex is illegal regardless of whether force, fraud, or coercion is involved. No matter the scenario, the law and its subsequent reauthorizations made clear that children under age 18 should never be treated as willing accomplices in prostitution, pornography schemes, or any other act involving the commercial sale of sex.

Following on the federal legislation, states in recent years have enacted “safe harbor” laws that provide for the coordination of services to child trafficking survivors, decriminalize youth involvement in trafficking, and increase penalties for traffickers of children. Safe harbor laws vary from state to state and are continually evolving, but all are meant to ease the stigma, promote recovery, and offer therapeutic (rather than punitive) pathways for care.11 The bottom line is that children who are being trafficked should always be treated as victims and that services are available to help schools support affected students.


  1. National Council of State Legislatures. (2017). Safe harbor: State efforts to combat child trafficking. National Council of State Legislatures. https://www.ncsl.org/research/civil-and-criminal-justice/safe-harbor-state-efforts-to-combat-child-trafficking.aspx