Four steps for keeping at-risk youth from engaging in the sex trade

By Meredith Dank :: October 24th, 2013

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The House Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee met on Wednesday to consider why the current child welfare system is failing to prevent so many at-risk youth from engaging in the sex trade, and how it can be reformed to better safeguard these young people.

These are important questions to tackle if we want to seriously address how and why so many vulnerable girls, boys, transgender, lesbian, gay, heterosexual, and bi-sexual youth enter the commercial sex market in order to have their basic needs met, particularly shelter and food.

My colleagues and I also asked these questions while conducting research on the characteristics and needs of youth involved in the commercial sex market. Our research told us that youth involved, or at risk of becoming involved, in the sex trade are often looking for two things: emotional and financial support. And evidence we gathered suggests these youth are too often not finding them in the current child welfare system.

We interviewed hundreds of youth engaged in the commercial sex market during the course of these studies and many of these young people told us they were neglected, and in some cases abused, while under the care of child welfare. They eventually fled the system because they thought they could find better financial and emotional support outside of it.

This is often how at-risk youth get involved in the sex trade.

One 19-year-old male told me he’d been trading sexual acts for money, food, and shelter since he was 16.

"I was in group homes and things like that, I would get into fights a lot … staff would tell me don’t come back, we’re going to get you arrested,” he said. “So I just [wouldn’t] go back, then I’d be homeless for a month. So one time a person came up [to] offer me money for sex, and I had none, so I did it. And so from then [on] it has been easy money.”

He is not alone. Many youth run from the child welfare system and cycle through stints on friends’ couches, friends’ parents’ couches, shelters, and homelessness. All the while, they’re desperate to find some means of supporting themselves. Such precarious circumstances leave these youth vulnerable to exploitation.

So what can be done now to better prevent more narratives and experiences like the one told by the 19 year-old young man? While considering long-term answers, four steps I recommend that Congress consider are:

  • Better training should be provided to foster families and guardians so that they can better provide the security these youth need to prevent them from becoming involved in the sex trade. Providing a safe and secure home for at-risk youth in the child welfare system is a critical first step to preventing them from running away and engaging in the commercial sex market.
  • The number of caseworkers who oversee a young person in the child welfare system should be decreased and stabilized. Caseworkers are too often taken off and/or reassigned new cases, and this turnover causes many of these youth to become distrustful of adults and the system.
  • More peer-led groups should be developed to allow youth involved in the child welfare system to share their experiences and lend each other advice. These peer groups should be a place where a young person, no matter what their sexual orientation or gender identity is, can feel comfortable to talk about their experiences and not feel judged.
  • More professional counselors and therapists should be made available to at-risk youth in the child welfare system to help them sort through complicated feelings and frustrations, before they run away from the system.

Although these are just a handful of suggestions for an extremely complicated and nuanced problem, I believe they are good starting points as Congress works toward legislative answers to address this issue.

Illustration by Daniel Wolfe, Urban Institute

1Comment

  1. Michelle  ::  5:29 pm on October 28th, 2013:

    It might help to provide more state-specific info on the various child welfare systems rather than it being generalized to all. Many provide support and options that you don’t discuss.