Ending Child Sex Trafficking in the United States, One Child at a Time

Rajani Gudlavalleti

Rajani Gudlavalleti

Upwards of 300,000 U.S. children—as young as 13 years of age—are exploited by sex trafficking annually (United States Department of Justice). Contrary to common belief, almost all child victims of trafficking in the United States are born here—forced to work in brothels, private parties, and truck stops. These are youth who did not have a trustworthy adult support system to help them avoid exploitation. To ensure that all young people lead healthy and fulfilling lives, it is essential for everyone who works with kids, including teachers and social workers, to understand U.S. child trafficking, how to identify these kids, and to develop appropriate solutions to get them out.

How do U.S. children get trafficked?

According to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, anyone under 18 committing commercial sexual acts is a victim of severe human trafficking. These victims are mostly girls who have been abused and forced by fear to either run away from home and/or caretakers prevented them from returning home out of anger. Traffickers coerce these children into prostitution by exploiting their desperation to meet basic needs. These adults use manipulation to gain the trust of these children and often compel them to believe that prostitution is their only option for survival.

How can I help?

  1. Learn about federal protections for trafficking victims: Victims can access publicly-funded services to meet their immediate needs (e.g., housing, food, health care), as well as counseling and income assistance.
  2. Confirm that the child is a victim of trafficking and build trust: For resources on recognizing the signs of a trafficking victim, please visit Polaris Project, FAIR Girls, or CAASE. Unfortunately, you may not be able to get children out immediately—but you can help them feel comfortable enough to eventually request help. Focus on gaining the child’s trust. Speak together in a safe and confidential environment, away from other adults.
  3. Work with the child to “come out”: To ensure that the child feels comfortable about escaping exploitation and accessing federal protections and services, the child must first “come out” to law enforcement as a victim of trafficking. However, these children almost always feel stuck, ashamed of their actions, and afraid to seek help. Use indirect strategies to teach the child about the legal protections afforded to victims who escape, without pressuring the child to take action.
  4. Research your local law enforcement agency’s practices in trafficking situations: Most law enforcement agencies—including the FBI—use insensitive “rescue” models, which involve large-scale police raids that sweep everyone on sight and do not take individual victims’ circumstances into account. For example, children who run away from home—an arrestable offense in some jurisdictions—are often returned to the unsafe home that sent them running in the first place. And, victims of trafficking often return to prostitution because they have no alternative means of survival.
  5. Develop a sustainable plan that empowers the child to be a successful adult: The most effective strategy to rescue children from trafficking is to address their needs one-by-one. Create a team of caring adults to ensure the child’s safe escape and re-integration into the community. Identify alternative means of livelihood by coordinating with homeless family services and/or youth job training programs.

It is not only essential for us to keep our eyes open for these victimized children, but we must work together to support them safely and effectively. As adults working to ensure that adolescents lead healthier sexual and family lives, we are obliged to ensure that victims of child sex trafficking survive, escape, and thrive.

Rajani Gudlavalleti is program coordinator for Open Society Institute-Baltimore, working primarily in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Program.


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