17, No. 3
Human Trafficking: What Child Welfare Workers Should Know
A mother “rents” her son to a man to support a drug addiction.
A 17-year-old in foster care runs away to be with her boyfriend, who then makes her work as a prostitute.
Two children are made to work long hours in a restaurant when they should be in school.
Most people know that because of risks to the safety and well-being of children, these scenarios would be of concern to a child welfare agency. What many do not know is that these scenarios also describe possible instances of human trafficking, a serious crime punishable under federal law by up to 20 years in prison (Federal Criminal Code,18 USC § 1584).
Child welfare professionals are often among the first to learn about child trafficking, which involves minors. By knowing how to identify and respond to victims, social workers can help bring safety and healing to children traumatized by human trafficking.
Human “trafficking” does not necessarily involve moving people from one country or place to another.
Sex trafficking victims are often runaways, troubled, or homeless youth (U.S. Dept. of State, 2011). An estimated 293,000 young people in the U.S. may be at risk for being trafficked for the sex trade (Estes & Weiner, 2001).
Psychological effects on victims can include fear and anxiety; depression and mood changes; guilt and shame; Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Traumatic Bonding with the trafficker (“Stockholm Syndrome”).
CPS Intake. Effective interviewing skills at this point in the child welfare process are key. Reporters rarely use the term “trafficking,” but by listening carefully to what a caller says, intake staff may pick up on language that could indicate possible trafficking. Be alert to references to children who are “treated like a slave,” sleep in a basement or garage, are not allowed to use the phone or leave the house, or who work too much. Any reference to prostitution, pornography, or commercial sex acts is a red flag (Loyola, 2011).
CPS Assessments. Interviewing skills are also important here. Taking time to build trust and create a safe-feeling space for victims is a priority. Use open-ended questions and mirror an interviewee’s language. Pay attention to the child’s feelings about safety. Ask, “Is it safe for you to talk with me right now? How safe do you feel right now? Are there times when you don’t feel safe? Is there anything that would help you to feel safer while we talk?” (Polaris Project, 2011)
Screening tools, such as those below, can help you identify victims. Other, more extensive screening tools are the Rapid Screening Tool for Child Trafficking and the Comprehensive Screening and Safety Tool. These are found in the Loyola University handbook profiled below.
Protecting and Supporting Victims
Legal protections and services are vital to trafficking victims. Child welfare staff should work closely with law enforcement and other service providers to meet victims’ immediate needs, which may include medical attention, clothing, counseling, and safe shelter. A summary of services available to victims of trafficking can be found in the Loyola University handbook profiled below.
In North Carolina, the Salvation Army of Wake County is part of a statewide strategy group on this issue. For more information and guidance about child welfare and human trafficking, contact their Injury Prevention Coordinator, Erica Snyder (919/886-7510; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Other Learning Resources