Trafficking and Runaway Youth


When Tina was 14, she was forced to work the streets by an older “boyfriend.” In testimony to a congressional subcommittee, Tina, now a street outreach coordinator for an anti-human-trafficking organization, detailed the beatings and emotional trauma she suffered at the hands of the man who initially won her over with love and attention before humiliating her and forcing her and three other girls onto the streets of Cleveland, Ohio. During that terrifying time, Tina said, she felt that she had nowhere to turn for help. She knew of no one who could provide her with the specific services she needed to regain control of her life.

Street outreach workers are often the first to come into contact with young victims of human trafficking like Tina. They may be runaway or homeless youth, or they may appear to be. And they often have needs similar to those of runaway and homeless youth clients, including shelter, health care, counseling, and other support services. But recognizing and helping human trafficking victims, who are often scared, manipulated, and abused, can be complicated. As the Federal government increases awareness of and services for domestic trafficking victims, street outreach workers may be called on more and more to recognize and refer young people like Tina to the services they need to reclaim their lives.

Indeed, in 2005, the Administration on Children and Families (ACF) began awarding a small number of grants to street outreach providers to help identify victims of trafficking among the populations they already work with, including atrisk and homeless youth and girls exploited through commercial sex. The grants supported direct, person- to-person contact, information sharing, and counseling.

This fall, ACF awarded an additional $3.4 million in grants to organizations across the country to fight human trafficking and provide assistance to victims.

“These grants will strengthen our effort to rescue and restore victims of human trafficking,” said Wade Horn, HHS assistant secretary for children and families. “They will enable groups to expand their outreach to identify and help more victims of this modern-day form of slavery.”

Who is a trafficking victim?
Trafficking victims can be boys or girls of all races and ethnicities. They can come from wealthy families or poor ones in cities, suburbs, or rural areas. Under the Trafficking Victims Reauthorization Act of 2005, anyone under the age of 18 who is used for a commercial sex act is automatically a victim of human trafficking, regardless of whether he or she is a “willing” participant. Trafficking victims over age 18 must have been subject to force, fraud, or coercion.

How do I stay safe when approaching potential trafficking victims?

According to Karen Countryman-Roswurm, a street outreach expert at Wichita Children’s Home, safety measures should include:

  • Do some geographic analysis. Where is sexual exploitation happening in your area? Be realistic about whether that place is safely accessible. If it is, park your van in the area for a while and just watch for hints of the particular street culture of the neighborhood.
  • Before you jump out of your van to approach a potential victim, assess the situation. Is someone trying to pick them up? Is the trafficker watching? If you approach, is that going to get them beat up?
  • Always respect gender roles. Street outreach teams should consist of a man and a woman. The female team member should approach a suspected female victim, with the male team member standing within a safe distance. The male team member should address a male trafficker, should it be necessary to do so.
  • Be careful how much you badmouth the person who’s exploiting the victim – it’s often her “boyfriend” or “caregiver.” Victims may not consider themselves exploited.
  • Set protocols and build relationships with the local police and the regional FBI. Conduct trainings to help them understand how to treat youth who are involved in sexual exploitation so that you feel comfortable calling them in to situations where you may need help.
  • What do I need to think about when providing services to these young people?
  • Victims will often deny the abuse because they or their families have been threatened or they are embarrassed. Being persistent and asking the right questions may help you determine if someone is a victim of human trafficking.
  • Enlist the help of a staff member who speaks the potential victim’s language and understands his or her culture.
  • Victims need safe housing away from traffickers or their associates.
  • Because victims have been so isolated from their families and friends, they often feel that going back to their exploiter is the only option.
  • Reestablishing social connections is crucial. Be aware, however, that exploiters often use victims to recruit other youth.
  • Victims often have no identification and need help getting new, untraceable replacements.
  • Victims need services, such as transportation, vocational training, and life skills, similar to all runaway and homeless youth.
  • Victims need mental health services from professionals trained to deal with extreme forms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Victims often need extreme medical and dental care.

Where do I go for more information?

The Trafficking Information and Referral Hotline. This hotline can help you determine if you have encountered victims of human trafficking and identify local resources available in your community to help victims. It will help you coordinate with local social service organizations to help protect and serve victims so they can begin the process of restoring their lives. Call 1-888-3737-888.

The Trafficking in Persons and Worker Exploitation Task Force Complaint Line. This service, provided by the U.S. Department of Justice, accepts reports of suspected cases of human trafficking. Call 1- 888-428-7581.

The ACTION Network. Started by San Diego Youth and Community Services, a FYSB grantee, the network aims to restore the lives of exploited children and prevent child victimization through increased awareness, advocacy, and collaboration. The network’s name stands for “Against Child Trafficking and Teen Prostitution in our Neighborhoods.” Made up of social service and medical health providers, law enforcement, prosecutors, street outreach workers, educators, faith-based organizations, community leaders, and governmental institutions, the ACTION Network takes a comprehensive approach to combating human trafficking. Call (619) 325- 3527 ext. 209, or email

Anti-Trafficking Resources

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Rescue and Restore Campaign (Administration for Children and Families) helps identify and assist victims of human trafficking in the United States. Go to

Trafficking Victims Reauthorization Act of 2005 (H.R. 972) provides added legal protection and services for victims of domestic human trafficking. Available at

"The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada and Mexico" is a prime source of recent data on human trafficking. Authors: R. Estes and N. Weiner. 2001. Available at
"Hiding in Plain Sight: A Practical Guide to Identifying Victims of Trafficking" in the U.S. emphasizes recognizing victims of sexual trafficking as defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. Author: D. Hughes. 2003. Available at

"Sex Trafficking of Women in the United States: International and Domestic Trends" provides a comprehensive overview of the sex industry, trafficking victims, and how traffickers recruit and control women. Authors: J. Raymond, D. Hughes. 2001. Available at grants/187774.pdf.

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