Bright Idea: Emergency Shelters Look for Human Trafficking When Youth Walk in the Door


Photograph of a young woman looking thoughtful.The young woman first contacted Bellefaire JCB, a social service agency in Cleveland, complaining of a toothache. Later, she returned because she’d received a card about the organizations’s trafficking program from the team that responded to her call. Letting her approach the program on her own terms was key to getting her in the door, says Karen McHenry, director of homeless youth and street outreach programs.

“Some of the kids aren’t ready to come in,” she says. “We get many calls on our homeless youth hotline every day, but it’s whether the teen feels they can really trust us and that we can help get them to a different situation that matters the most."

McHenry says a young person’s entry into a program is a key opportunity to identify young people who may be sexually exploited. But youth workers have to simultaneously exercise patience and vigilance. Sexual exploitation can be difficult to recognize, especially because most youth don’t see themselves as victims. Staff who recognize the signs of trafficking and know how to respectfully gather information, McHenry says, can better identify sexually exploited youth and direct them to the right services.

“These kids’ pain and these wounds are very much beneath the surface,” she says. “You really need to be skilled in asking the right questions in a very non-threatening way.”

Recognizing the Signs of Trafficking

Enrolling workers in training programs for human trafficking and trauma-informed care can help them sensitively probe for answers that may not come up in a basic assessment of young people’s situation and needs, says Jennifer O’Farrell, director of the anti-human trafficking programs at Operation SafeHouse, a youth shelter in Riverside County, CA.

When staff understand that major events like divorce and death may make teens more vulnerable to trafficking, she says, common intake questions about parental history take on more meaning. Learning about the underlying issues behind trafficking, such as a desire for love and belonging, can also help youth workers understand young people’s reluctance to leave their traffickers.

Other warning signs to look for in a young person:

  • Is brought to your facility after being found at a local motel or truck stop.
  • Has a cell phone that rings constantly, often showing calls from an unknown number.
  • Arrives with large amounts of cash.
  • Seems overly distracted or tired.
  • Has untended physical or medical needs.

Going Off-Script

Trained staff members can also more easily steer the conversation in a new direction if they sense any signs of human trafficking.

A good example, O’Farrell says, is the question "Do you have any tattoos?" Instead of recording the answer and moving on, youth workers can ask clients about the meaning and history behind their tattoos, which may be a sign of “branding” by a pimp or trafficker.

At Bellefaire JCB, staff members often learn helpful information about a youth’s living situation by asking them if they have a house key. If the youth doesn’t have one, staff members ask what the youth needs to do to be invited inside.

No matter what you ask, always keep the conversation nonjudgemental, O’Farrell and McHenry say.

Of course, learning what youth have been through can take time. Operation SafeHouse staff mark the files of youth who they suspect have been trafficked by placing them in a different colored folder.

Then, when the youth has become more comfortable at the shelter, O’Farrell talks to them one-on-one.

For More Information

The Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime Training and Technical Assistance Center has a directory of anti-trafficking training programs.

National Clearinghouse on Families & Youth | 5515 Security Lane, Suite 800 | North Bethesda, MD 20852 | (301) 608-8098 |