An estimated 3 of every 4 victims of sex trafficking are girls or women. In the case of young female victims, they often share similar characteristics: they are homeless or runaways, victims of previous abuse, and often involved in the juvenile justice system.
A Harrowing Story
Alyssa Beck was just fifteen years old when she became one of the thousands of youth coerced into the world of sex trafficking. Her harrowing story begins like those of many other victims: Alyssa’s father abused substances, had difficulty controlling his anger, and, when she was thirteen, began physically abusing Alyssa and her sister. Soon after the first incident of abuse, Alyssa began displaying aversion to authority and decided to run away from home—first, she stayed away for hours at a time, then days, then weeks. When she was finally caught giving police officers a false name at fourteen years old, her mother was desperate—she agreed to have her daughter incarcerated, in hopes that it would provide Alyssa the treatment she needed. But instead, out-of-home placement did the opposite: Alyssa met an older girl who coaxed her into running away from the correctional facility, and together, they went to Jacksonville, FL. Soon, the older girl told Alyssa why they ran away: she was involved in sex trafficking and told Alyssa she was going to work for her. This began a long cycle of coercion, control, and exploitation by dozens of men in Jacksonville’s underground sex trafficking ecosystem.
Alyssa’s experience is heartbreaking, but not unique: in the United States alone, 300,000 children are victims of sex trafficking every single year. The average age of a child victim is only twelve years old, and across the globe, sex trafficking is a shadowy industry worth upwards of $32 billion per year. Sex trafficking in the U.S. is on the rise; the National Human Trafficking Hotline has seen a surge in cases reported, from 5,500 in 2015 to 11,500 in 2019.
Sex Trafficking and Juvenile Justice
Girls exploited by the sex trafficking system face an alarming double-bind: thirty-one states still charge minors with prostitution, and in 2019, at least 290 American teens were arrested under this law. This can lead young victims to hesitate to alert law enforcement to their plight for fear of arrest and incarceration—due to this very fear, Alyssa Beck chose not to tell authorities of her situation. But the same elements that put adolescents at higher risk for involvement in sex trafficking also put them at risk for juvenile incarceration. A study of juvenile prostitution cases found that 84% had a history of running away, and almost half had prior arrests and detentions. In the eyes of many judges, girls who have run away violated curfew or other minor offenses will be safer inside detention centers than on the streets. Yet most correctional facilities are ill-equipped to deal with the complicated health needs of girls in the juvenile justice system and can introduce them to the violent world of sex trafficking.
Most young females brought to court are arrested for non-violent offenses: prostitution, larceny, and liquor violations, to name a few. Yet an astounding 73% of them have had histories of sexual or physical abuse. Victims of this type of abuse, members of unstable families or communities, and those who are disconnected from education systems are susceptible to both sex trafficking and placement in correctional facilities. Sex traffickers choose to prey on the most vulnerable adolescents—often, those with issues like substance abuse and violence at home—by deceiving them into feeling safe, loved, and wanted. “These traffickers made me feel like I was loved,” Alyssa Beck recounted. “I was running from something... and I was running to love and acceptance.” But by placing youth like Alyssa with histories of running away into detention centers, we aren’t addressing family grievances; in fact, we may make it more likely that youth search for safety outside of the home, leading them towards the realm of sex trafficking. Out-of-home facilities are not the research-based interventions that young victims of trauma need to heal and thrive.
Addressing the Risk with Gender-Responsive Interventions
Orbis Partners offers a series of strengths-based and trauma-informed gender-responsive interventions for women and girls. Moving On is an evidence-based intervention for women who are at-risk or involved in the criminal justice system. This program integrates strength-based, trauma-informed, and relational theory approaches to help women mobilize and build personal and social resources. Similar to Moving On, Girls…Moving On is a behavioral intervention for at-risk girls between the ages of 12-21 years. The program helps girls increase their motivation and provide them with new skills and personal resources. Living Safely and Without Violence (LSWV) is an intervention for women who have been charged with violent crimes and/or report a history of aggressive behavior (self-harm and violence toward others). This program integrates cognitive-behavioral, strengths-based, and trauma-informed approaches to encourage females to use adaptive strategies and social resources that will permit them to live safely and without violence. Lastly, Collaborative Case Work for Women (CCW-W) is an evidence-based case management model that brings together a mix of supports, services, and intervention programs. CCW-W proposes a dynamic and seamless process that begins at sentencing, continues beyond discharge from prison and/or community supervision, and ends when the woman is stabilized in her community.
Family distress can cause a young person to run from home, but strength-based, trauma-informed, relational theory approaches, and motivational interviewing can help women and girls mobilize and build personal and social resources. By offering gender-responsive intervention treatment for youth and women who have been victims of trauma or are at risk of entering the sex trafficking industry, Orbis is effective at turning suffering into success.
Orbis Partners provides solutions for criminal justice and human services systems, specializing in designing and implementing services for at-risk client groups. For more information about our Gender-Responsive Interventions, visit our page by clicking here.