Sex trafficking of minors a growing concern

silhouette of girl with price code like bars and underneith '123NOT4SALE567'Audrey Morrissey remembers when she was hopelessly in love with her high school boyfriend.

“I was a lonely little girl and I lived in a fantasy world,” she said. “My boyfriend was everything to me.”

That’s one reason it was easy for Morrissey’s boyfriend to manipulate her into selling sex for money. The couple had a child by the time Morrissey was 15 years old. She said she believed her boyfriend’s promises that they would live together as a family, and she often stole money when he asked her to.

It wasn’t long before he put her in Boston’s combat zone, an adult entertainment district where sex workers frequented during the 1960s and 70s.

Morrissey said her boyfriend used seduction as a tactic to manipulate her into doing things she didn’t want to do. She endured rape and beatings, and said she was even “let go” by a police officer in return for performing a sexual act on him.

“Even after the abuse started, the love I had for my boyfriend was real,” Morrissey said. “He did whatever it took for me to fall completely in love with him. I did what I didn’t want to do so he would keep loving me.”

Sex trafficking of girls — and less often boys — under the age of 18 has existed for years, but social workers and others who specialize in this area say it’s becoming more common as demand grows.

“There have always been stories of children being bought and sold, going back to the very founding of this country,” said Malika Saada Saar, executive director of rights4girls, a human-rights organization in Washington, D.C., that focuses on gender-based violence and its impact on vulnerable young women and girls in the U.S. “What we see playing out now is that there is a crisis around how the landscape of those who purchase sex has changed.”

The emergence of the Internet, the anonymity buyers have online, and a culture of impunity make people unafraid to buy children for sex, she said.

“This industry was once a landscape where adults were being purchased for sex, and that has changed,” Saar said. “The new norm has increasingly become buying children, and the demands for it can be discreet and anonymous.”

Mainstream websites like make it as easy to purchase minors for sex as buying a piece of furniture, she said, and there isn’t proof of a systematic approach to arrest and prosecute buyers. The sites use code language where a buyer will be able to interpret the “sale” of a minor for sex.

“There isn’t a culture of punishment for buyers, so they’re not afraid of being caught,” Saar said.

The most vulnerable

Morrissey said a fraught relationship with her mother and a home where she felt she didn’t quite belong left her low in self-esteem and in search of acceptance. They were all cues that her high school boyfriend-turned-pimp instantly picked up on, she said.

These same feelings often leave minors from foster care and broken homes prey to sex traffickers, said NASW Social Work Pioneer® Liz Salett, who developed the website Human Trafficking Search.

Young people without strong bonds to family very often don’t have alternatives, she said.

“Girls feel no one else in the world has loved or taken care of them except for this man, and it’s their only system of support,” Salett said. “If they are trying to think about a world without her pimp, that world is often a jail cell.”

There are 100,000 people in the U.S. under age 18 who are in the commercial sex industry, said NASW member Victoria Hougham, a clinical social worker with the Polaris Project in Washington, D.C. The Polaris Project is a nonprofit organization that works to eradicate all types of human trafficking and modern-day slavery worldwide.

Many people assume sex trafficking is something that takes place outside of the U.S., Hougham said, which is not the case. People also may think those in the industry are there by choice. But, she said, a minor who is involved in sex trafficking likely has been coerced.

“People who are under 18 are particularly vulnerable to exploitation,” Hougham said. “Those who are runaways, victims of some type of abuse or neglect, and come from families without support … the traffickers find the vulnerabilities. They use the child to make a profit.”

And the profit traffickers make can be huge, Salett said.

“The money that a pimp can make with one girl per year can be $250,000,” she said. “The girl won’t get much of that. This is another reason why sex trafficking with minors is growing … the profits can be humongous.”

Hougham said sex trafficking of minors in the U.S. is illegal. If a minor is caught, however, they are often the ones arrested for prostitution. They won’t give details about their pimps to law enforcement, or even realize they are the victims of trafficking.

“It’s very misunderstood, and there is an idea that prostitution is the oldest profession in the world,” she said. “But someone at 14 or 15 is not in it by choice.”

“If a minor is caught by law enforcement, they will often be treated like a criminal instead of a victim,” Hougham added. “Through being so exploited by the pimp, they are not able to disclose details and may insist they’re doing it by choice.”

Once a minor gets wrapped up in the industry, it can be very hard for them to leave, Saar said. And if they try, the consequences could be deadly. Also, a “trauma” bond they have formed with the trafficker can make it emotionally impossible to escape, she said.

The social work role

Susan Lamb, executive director of NASW’s Maine Chapter, said social work speaks to the issue of human sex trafficking. The chapter was involved in getting state legislation passed that mandates if a person appears and is determined by law enforcement to be a victim of sex trafficking, they will not face prostitution charges.

“If victims are arrested for prostitution, the charge stays on their record,” Lamb said. “This bill acts as a wonderful reset button. Charges will be erased and they have a chance to rebuild their life.”

She said social workers can advocate for better care in the foster care system, and for social policies to keep minors from becoming victims of sex trafficking.

“As a society, we tend to turn a blind eye when this happens to minors. We don’t know what happens to kids when they hit the streets,” she said. “We need to address the underlying crises that bring people into this trade. Group homes aren’t great, and minors need more than an overnight shelter bed. They need a safe, sheltered living environment.”

Salett said that while there is no one solution to eradicate minor sex trafficking, more legislation to safeguard young people is needed. And social workers can educate themselves, get training on the issue, and advocate for better laws, she said.

“Especially social workers assigned to kids in foster care, they need to be involved in training about sex trafficking and help other stakeholders, teachers, law enforcement and counselors to be aware that minors are susceptible,” Salett said.

Another way to help control the issue is to look for signs that pinpoint whether a minor in a social worker’s charge is involved in sex trafficking.

“They need to look for things like whether a minor has nice clothes all of a sudden, nails done, hair done, a change in behavior,” Salett said. “It takes perking our eyes and ears up a little bit.”

Hougham said other telltale signs are truancy, a lack of ID cards, evidence of a potentially abusive relationship, and hanging out with much older people.

“Anything where you feel something may not be right, something may not,” she said. “Social workers can help by learning how to spot a potential victim and reporting it appropriately. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center has a 24-hour hotline where people can call in and anonymously report a suspected case of minor sex trafficking.”

Therapy is a critical service that survivors of trafficking need, Hougham added, as they could suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma.

“Most survivors do not have medical insurance or the ability to pay out of pocket for mental health services,” she said. “More clinicians with trauma experience are needed to offer pro bono counseling to survivors of trafficking.”

Morrissey said it’s important that social workers don’t pass judgment, because victims will be more likely to let their guards down.

As a survivor, she said it’s possible for victims of sex trafficking to recover and have positive, fulfilling lives. In fact, Morrissey is now the associate director of the Justice Resource Institute’s My Life My Choice in Boston, a program that helps prevent the commercial sexual exploitation of adolescent girls through survivor-led programs.

“We do recover,” she said. “Women and girls do recover. But we have to get the men involved. They have to know it’s not OK to buy sex, and the women and children in the trade are the victims.”

NASW urges support of Violence Against Women Act

NASW sent an advocacy alert in May, encouraging members to urge their members of congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act (S. 2307).

IVAWA calls for a comprehensive U.S. response to end violence against women and girls globally by:

  • Directing the Department of State and USAID to continue implementing a comprehensive multisectoral strategy to prevent and respond to gender-based violence
  • Integrating efforts to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls as part of U.S. foreign-assistance programs, including health, education, economic growth, legal reform, political participation, social norm change, humanitarian assistance and foreign security training
  • Supporting overseas nongovernmental and community-based organizations working to end violence against women and girls
  • Ensuring uniform data collection and accountability measures are in place to track investments in programs that address gender-based violence

The bipartisan legislation was reintroduced in the Senate and is led by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Susan Collins, R-Maine, Mark Kirk, R-Ill., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.

The House of Representatives also reintroduced the IVAWA (H.R. 3571), in November, with bipartisan support from Reps. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.

NASW offers several resources for members about sex trafficking. These include:

  • “Human Trafficking and Modern-Day Slavery” {}
  • Help Starts Here: Efforts of the United States: The Struggle of Violence Against Women.
  • Specialty Practice Sections Webinar (for SPS members): “Missing and Exploited: How Social Workers Can Help to Serve Children of Sexual Exploitation.”
  • Specialty Practice Sections Webinar (for SPS members): “Understanding the Commercial Exploitation of Children.”

(Transcripts and audio of past webinars available at Specialty Practice Sections.)

  • Specialty Practice Section Children Adolescents and Young Adults Winter 2013 Section Connection Newsletter (for SPS members): “Identifying, Assessing and Helping Child and Adolescent Sex Trafficking Victims.”

Additional Information and Resources:

Did You Know?

  • Twenty-five percent of sex traffickers come out of the foster care system.
  • Eighteen states in the U.S. have safe harbor laws, which are meant to protect victims of sex trafficking.
  • Girls are mainly associated with sex trafficking, but boys and young people who are LGBT are also victims.
  • Fifty percent to 90 percent of minors who are trafficked come out of the foster care system.
  • It’s assumed if a girl has a poor or no relationship with her father, she is more vulnerable to exploitation. But a relationship with a mother is just as, if not more, important.

— Sources: Liz Salett, Victoria Hougham and Audrey Morrissey