Vulnerable Populations

Some young people are more vulnerable to being trafficked than others, and often one risk factor overlaps with and amplifies others. Particularly vulnerable groups of students tend to share histories of poverty, family instability, physical and sexual abuse, and trauma. Racial and ethnic minority students are more vulnerable to trafficking partly because they are more likely to experience poverty and its associated effects. The relationship between race and the risk of being trafficked is profound; in some jurisdictions, African American minors—most of them girls—represent 50% or more of all juvenile sex trafficking victims.12 American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander girls are also much more likely to be sexually exploited than their non-native peers.13,14 Hispanics too are disproportionately affected by human trafficking, especially labor trafficking.15

Beyond these broad demographic groups just referenced, certain subpopulations of youth are at elevated risk for being trafficked. Particularly vulnerable groups are described next.

Runaway youth | Young people who run away from home are often fleeing abusive or neglectful situations. Despite their attempts to improve their circumstances, young people who leave home to couch-surf or live on the streets run the risk of severe exploitation. According to researchers, young people who run away from home more than once are far more likely than their peers to drop out of school; dropping out of school, in turn, removes a student from healthy peers and adults and makes exploitation far more likely. While risk factors for running away include physical and emotional abuse and substance use, research has suggested that one of the most important factors for runaway youth who become involved in trafficking is having a much older boyfriend or girlfriend.16

Homeless youth | Few young people are as vulnerable to exploitation as unaccompanied homeless youth. Without the protection of an adult caregiver, homeless youth can be desperate to address their basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter. Homeless youth are vulnerable to labor traffickers because they need to support themselves and are often willing to take any job that is offered.17 A large 2016 study of runaway and homeless youth found that 14% of youth receiving services from homeless youth shelters had been trafficked for sex and 8% had been trafficked for labor. Some regional studies have found that up to 40% of homeless youth report trafficking experiences.18 The median age at which youth in the national study began being trafficked for sex was 16. Among homeless youth, 24% of those identifying as LGBTQ reported having been sold for sex or exchanged sex for food, shelter, or other basic needs.19

Young people who are or were in the child welfare system | By definition, children involved with the child welfare system have already experienced physical and emotional abuse and neglect.20 Because of their painful histories, they are more likely than their peers to have complex needs and challenges. They can be particularly vulnerable to predators who seem to offer them love, care, and security. Researchers have found a strong correlation between chronic neglect and abuse, particularly sexual abuse, and later sexual exploitation.21

Young people who are or have been in the juvenile justice system | There is a bidirectional association (i.e., young people may move in either direction) between involvement in the juvenile justice system and the likelihood of experiencing sex trafficking. A study of 86 state-involved youth in Washington State with confirmed or suspected histories of being trafficked found that 75% had been in juvenile detention at least once; the average number of episodes in detention was 9.2.22 Sometimes, detentions are a consequence of an arrest for prostitution; other times, factors such as poverty, mental health issues, substance abuse, and homelessness make young people more vulnerable to arrest. Youth who are arrested may in turn be exposed to adult criminals who abuse them, amplifying their trauma.23

Students who drop out of school | Dropping out of school is both a risk factor for trafficking and a consequence of it. Juveniles and adults who become involved in the commercial sex trade are more likely than their peers to have a history of interrupted school activity, including school dropout.24 A 2018 study of homeless youth found that those who had been trafficked for sex were 72% more likely to have dropped out of school than homeless youth who had not been trafficked, leading researchers to conclude that graduating from high school is a protective factor for youth.25

Students with intellectual and developmental disabilities or differences | Students with cognitive disabilities or developmental delays are particularly vulnerable to trafficking. Research has found that students with disabilities are often unable to say “no,” can’t easily read the intentions of friends or “romantic partners,” and do not understand the dangers involved in running away. When they realize they are in trouble, they often feel trapped, but cannot find a way out.26

LGBTQ youth | Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth experience high rates of bullying, assault, and sexual abuse. Up to 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, and LGBTQ youth are up to seven times more likely to experience acts of sexual violence.27 LGBTQ youth who are forced out of their homes by unaccepting families or communities are at high risk of violence, and can be easy prey for pimps or acquaintances who offer help in exchange for sex. Sometimes, the structure of such relationships is quasi-familial, where youth report being coerced into commercial sex by a seemingly caring “house parent.”28

Unaccompanied migrant youth | Minor refugees or immigrants who are in the United States without their parents have often experienced significant loss and turmoil before and during their journey to the United States and may face more in the months after they arrive. Even short-term separation between parents and children can increase the likelihood of conflict when families are reunified. In the meantime, teens who are placed with nonfamily sponsors or caregivers are at risk for abuse, homelessness, and trafficking.29 Ironically, migrant youth coming to the United States may be forced by the journey itself into labor trafficking because they may have to pay off the debt they or family members incurred to get to the United States.30

Migrant and seasonal workers | Children and teens traveling with or without their families as part of seasonal agricultural work crews are easy to exploit. These young people may be U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, undocumented immigrants, or citizens of other countries working under temporary work visas. Whatever their situation, they tend to travel from place to place and work in relative isolation, sometimes for crew leaders willing to ignore child labor and education laws.31


  1. Rights4Girls. (2019). Domestic child sex trafficking and black girls. Rights4Girls. https://rights4girls.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/r4g/2019/05/Black-Girls-DCST-May-2019-1.pdf
  2. Pierce, A. (2012). American Indian adolescent girls: Vulnerability to sex trafficking, intervention strategies. American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research: The Journal of the National Center, 19(1), 37–56. https://doi.org/10.5820/aian.1901.2012.37; Roe-Sepowtiz, D., & Jabola-Carolus, K. (2019). Sex trafficking in Hawai’i: The stories of survivors. Arizona State University and Hawai’i State Commission on the Status of Women. https://ncjtc-static.fvtc.edu/resources/RS00009136.pdf
  3. NCAI Policy Research Center. (2016). Human & sex trafficking: Trends and responses across Indian country. Tribal Insights Brief, Spring 2016. http://www.ncai.org/policy-research-center/research-data/prc-publications/TraffickingBrief.pdf
  4. Polaris Project. (2020, July 29). Racial disparities, Covid-19, and human trafficking. Polaris Project. https://polarisproject.org/blog/2020/07/racial-disparities-covid-19-and-human-trafficking/
  5. Fedina, L., Perdue, T., Bright, C. L., & Williamson, C. (2019). An ecological analysis of risk factors for runaway behavior among individuals exposed to commercial sexual exploitation. Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, 12, 221–231. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7163838/
  6. Walts, K. (2017). Child labor trafficking in the United States: A hidden crime. Social Inclusion, 5(2), 59–68. https://doi.org/10.17645/si.v5i2.914
  7. National Network for Youth. (2018). Responding to youth homelessness: A key strategy for preventing human trafficking. National Network for Youth. https://nn4youth.org/wp-content/uploads/NN4Y-2018-white-paper-human-trafficking-WEB-1.pdf
  8. Murphy, L. (2016). Labor and sex trafficking among homeless youth: A ten-city study. Loyola University. https://oag.ca.gov/sites/all/files/agweb/pdfs/ht/murphy-labor-sex-trafficking-homeless-youth.pdf
  9. Freeman, P. (2014). Prevalence and relationship between adverse childhood experiences and child behavior among young children. Infant Mental Health Journal, 35(6), 527–656. https://doi.org/10.1002/imhj.21460
  10. Gibbs, D. A., Feinberg, R. K., Dolan, M., Latzman, N. E., Misra, S., & Domanico, R. (2018). Report to Congress: The child welfare system response to sex trafficking of children. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/report/report-congress-child-welfare-system-response-sex-trafficking-children
  11. Pullmann, D., Roberts, N., Parker, E., Mangiaracina, K., Briner, L., Silverman, M., & Becker, J. (2020). Residential instability, running away, and juvenile detention characterizes commercially exploited youth involved in Washington State’s child welfare system. Child Abuse & Neglect, 102, 104423. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2020.104423
  12. Pfenning, E., Bardine, D., & Smoot, N. (n.d.). Child trafficking and juvenile justice. Webinar slides. https://juvjustice.org/sites/default/files/ckfinder/files/Human%20Trafficking%20Webinar.pdf
  13. Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. (2013). Confronting commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors in the United States. The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/18358
  14. Wolfe, D., Greeson, J., Wasch, S., & Treglia, D. (2018). Human trafficking prevalence and child welfare risk factors among homeless youth: A multi-city study. The Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research, University of Pennsylvania. https://fieldcenteratpenn.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/6230-R10-Field-Center-Full-Report-Web.pdf
  15. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Center. (2018). Human trafficking and individuals with disabilities. Webinar. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/otip/training-technical-assistance/resource/nhttacwebinarindiv
  16. International Organization for Youth and Courtney’s House. (2018). LGBTQ youth and sex trafficking. http://iofa.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/IOFA-LGBTQ-Youth-Final-.pdf
  17. International Organization for Youth and Courtney’s House. (2018). LGBTQ youth and sex trafficking. http://iofa.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/IOFA-LGBTQ-Youth-Final-.pdf
  18. Cardoso, J., Brabeck, K., Stinchcomb, D., Heidbrink, L., Price, O. A., Gil-Carcia, O., … Zayas, L. (2019). Integration of unaccompanied migrant youth in the United States: A call for research. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 45(2), 273–292. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369183X.2017.1404261
  19. Walts, K. (2017). Child labor trafficking in the United States: A hidden crime. Social Inclusion, 5(2), 59–68. https://www.cogitatiopress.com/socialinclusion/article/view/914/914
  20. National Human Trafficking Hotline. (n.d.). Agriculture. https://humantraffickinghotline.org/labor-trafficking-venuesindustries/agriculture