Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance announced that his office will award $2 million over three years to develop an intervention to address youth sex trafficking in New York City.
“In case after case, we see traffickers target children and teens, particularly those in our child welfare system or those who have run away from home,” said Vance, in a press release. “Through this investment in mentorship, case management, and emergency assistance, we will not only support child survivors of sex trafficking, we will help prevent children from being exploited in the first place.”
The initiative, developed with the Administration for Children’s Services and the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence, aims to tackle a complex problem. Two of the most common gateways into the sex trade are “survival sex,” which involves selling sex to access food and shelter, or, exploitation by an intimate partner, says Andrea Nichols, a lecturer in women, gender, and sexuality studies at Washington University in St. Louis. That means preventing sex trafficking requires a mix of costly interventions tailored to each victim.
“Research bears it out that wraparound care and collaborative models work best with survivors of trafficking,” said Nichols. “The needs that are consistently at the top of the list are health care, substance use disorder services, residential detox services, adult shelter, and housing or shelter for minors.”
The funding will go towards models that emphasize peer mentorship and services to address both the immediate needs of survivors — healthcare, crisis counseling, shelter — and long-term goals like improving education and employment. But local researchers are skeptical that the $2 million will be sufficient to deliver all of the services outlined.
“This is not a lot of money to actually do all the programming that was promised,” said Anila Duro, an adjunct professor at Manhattan’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice who is completing a doctorate in sex trafficking. “It’s not enough to pay the staff and to pay the survivors — I want to see more survivor-led programming.”
The intervention will hire survivors and train them to serve as mentors to younger trafficking victims, fulfilling a need identified both by the DA’s office and scholars like Nichols and Duro.
Such mentoring programs have been shown to have a positive impact in some areas, but improvement isn’t always straightforward. After one year, participants in My Life, My Choice — a Boston-based peer mentoring program highlighted by the DA’s office — were three times less likely to report being a victim of commercial sexual exploitation in the past six months, according to one evaluation.
However, the study authors, from Boston University’s School of Public Health and the Northeastern School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, noted that while rates of drug use, risky behaviors, and sexually explicit behaviors that don’t involve trafficking sex decreased after six months in the program, there was some rebounding in these areas after one year.
“This suggests that, similar to recovery from trauma of other types, recovery from CSE [commercial sexual exploitation] is not always a linear process,” said the study. “Thus, those who work with and/or care about youth who have been exploited may need to be prepared to endure relapses in risky behavior, and to provide services for a long period of time.”
Amber Rivero, a survivor of trafficking who is now a student and research assistant at John Jay, pointed to a lack of research on interventions targeted specifically at survivors of sex trafficking rather than survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, or labor trafficking; she and Duro recently applied for a grant for a research project looking at what approaches best promote healing among survivors of sex trafficking. In her own experience, Rivera saw a special need for housing and other family-stabilization services for survivors of sex trafficking.
“When I came out and I tried to reach back and help other girls, almost every single girl that I would meet, they all came from group homes, foster care, or just completely unstable homes, or another type of abuse and type of neglect,” said Rivero.
Three out of four children who were commercially sexually exploited in New York City spent time in foster care and 85 percent had prior contact with the child welfare system, according to a 2007 study prepared for the state Office of Children and Family Services. ACS reported that nearly 3,000 New York City youth were trafficked or at-risk for trafficking in 2018.
Vance, who has been criticized for his handling of several high-profile sexual assault cases and has not announced if he will seek a fourth term as DA, said the sex trafficking prevention initiative will be paid for with “funds seized in our investigations against major banks.”
He created the Criminal Justice Investment Initiative in 2016 with $250 million from asset forfeitures, of which $36.5 million now remains. Manhattan Assemblymember Dan Quart, who entered the DA’s race last fall, has criticized the fund as an inappropriate incentive for a DA’s office and has proposed a state bill that would split asset forfeiture funds between the state and a country executive or borough president.
Megan Conn is a reporter in New York for The Chronicle of Social Change, and can be reached at mconn@chronicleofsocialchange.