95 Percent of Homeless Youth Who Experienced Sex Trafficking Say They Were Maltreated as Children

The Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research at the University of Pennsylvania recently completed a multi-city research study on the prevalence of sex trafficking among homeless youth, with a special emphasis on child welfare risk and protective factors. Little rigorous research has focused on the correlation between child welfare experience and sex trafficking, yet estimates have been cited that the majority of victims of child sex trafficking have experienced the child welfare system.

Largest Study to Date on Trafficking and Homeless Youth

Covenant House International engaged Penn’s Field Center and the Loyola University (New Orleans) Modern Slavery Research Project as research partners to conduct the largest national study to date on human trafficking within this population.

Interviews with close to 1,000 youth in 13 cities across the United States and Canada revealed that nearly one in five (19.4 percent) were victims of human trafficking, with 15 percent reporting sex trafficking, 7.4 percent labor trafficking, and 3 percent experiencing both.

By also studying the child welfare background of victims, the Field Center hoped to gain a better understanding about who was most at risk for sex trafficking victimization and help shape new child welfare policy and practice.

Youth in all sites were interviewed utilizing the validated Human Trafficking Interview and Assessment Measure (HTIAM-10). The Field Center focused its research on youth engaged in homeless services in three cities: Phoenix, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

To better understand the backgrounds of the youth, Field Center researchers designed the Child Welfare Supplemental Survey (CWSS), which was administered to all research participants who reported a history of sex trafficking and/or involvement in the commercial sex trade. This secondary instrument looked at multiple child welfare factors, including: history of child maltreatment, child welfare system involvement, and out-of-home placement, as well as potential protective factors, as reported by the youth who were interviewed.

Commercial Sex is a Way of Life for Many Homeless Youth

The Field Center found that 20 percent of those interviewed were victims of human trafficking, as defined by the U.S. Victims of Trafficking & Violence Prevention Act of 2000, with 17 percent experiencing sex trafficking and 6 percent labor trafficking. Participants in addition reported significant involvement in the sex trade beyond experiences meeting the federal definition of trafficking. Fourteen percent described engaging in “survival sex,” defined as when individuals over the age of 18 who trade sex acts to meet the basic needs of survival without overt force, fraud or coercion of a trafficker, but who felt that their circumstances left little or no other option. In addition, over one-third of those interviewed (36 percent) reported engaging in a commercial sex act at some point in their lives.

While 24 percent of females and 9 percent of males reported that they experienced sex trafficking, it is suspected that males may very well have underreported for reasons similar to male reluctance to disclose sexual abuse.

Homeless youth are particularly vulnerable to victimization. Two out of three homeless females interviewed reported being solicited for paid sex, and 22 percent of those solicited described being approached on their very first night of being homeless.

Child Welfare History of Trafficking Victims

For victims of sex trafficking, 63 percent reported involvement with the child welfare system and a staggering 95 percent reported a history of child abuse and/or neglect. The largest number (49 percent) had been sexually abused as children, followed by 33 percent experiencing physical abuse. More than half reported that the maltreatment began when they were 5 years of age or younger, and all but a few described the onset of maltreatment as age 10 or younger.

Instability in housing and frequent placement moves also characterized the population of sex trafficking victims. Over half did not have a place to live at some point prior to his or her 18th birthday, and 88 percent of youth who experienced commercial sex lived in at least one place without a biological parent. Forty one percent who were sex trafficked reported having been removed from their family of origin and placed in out-of-home care by the child welfare system. One out of four described 10 or more different placements, and several said that they lived in too many places to count.

One theme that emerged throughout the research was the lack of reliable family and/or caring adults in their lives. While 62 percent of those who recalled experiencing child abuse disclosed that they told someone about it, only half reportedly took action in response.

When those who experienced sex trafficking were asked what could have helped prevent them from being in this situation, the most frequent answer was having supportive parents or family members. The research found that the lack of a caring adult in one’s life made participants more likely to have experienced sex trafficking.

A second protective factor appears to be graduation from high school. Victims of sex trafficking were 72 percent more likely to have dropped out of high school than the full sample of homeless youth. Of those who reported a history of sex trafficking, only 22 percent had a high school diploma. Earning a GED did not demonstrate similar findings to actually graduating from high school.

Child Welfare System Provides Opportunity for Prevention

Findings illustrate several key areas to inform child welfare policy and practice.

The glaring rate of history of child sexual abuse, including the onset of maltreatment, highlights those most at risk for sex trafficking. Further study can illuminate potential interventions aimed at reducing risk for victimization for this population.

Placement stability and targeted services and interventions to reduce youth homelessness, particularly among the aging out population, would provide further opportunities for prevention. In addition, youth need to be provided with tangible and intangible tools for independence.

Finally, the two protective factors that emerged from this research, graduation from high school and the presence of a caring adult in one’s life, warrant further consideration and policy focus for our nation’s child welfare systems.

The final report is expected to be released this fall.

Debra Schilling Wolfe
, MEd, is the founding executive director of the Field Center at the Upenn School of Social Policy and Practice. She has held leadership roles in the child welfare arena for over 30 years and has directed numerous innovative child welfare programs nationally.

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  1. Good article. Thank you. 80% of trafficked youth in Kansas from 2014-2015 had had a previous intake with child welfare that had not been effectively addressed. There is a correlation between maternal drug usage and the sex trafficking of her children. Many children have mothers who are using drugs and subject to domestic violence and at the same time have a man on their birth certificate who is not their biological father. These men are often pimps. Most children born positive for drugs are ignored by child welfare and sent home with their drug addicted mothers. It’s my opinion that child protective services in the last 20 years have created a sex trafficking epidemic in the USA. And it’s only going to get worse unless we act.

    • The child welfare industry feeds the sex trafficking industry – agree 100%! The solution is NOT to throw more money at CPS to “increase awareness and combat sex trafficking”. Really, legislators? How about defunding CPS.

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