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December/January 2022Vol. 22, No. 11Learning About Indicators of Human Trafficking From Child Welfare Case Narratives

An article published in Children and Youth Services Review, "Learning From Child Welfare Case Narratives: A Directed Content Analysis of Indicators for Human Trafficking," analyzes child welfare case narratives for indicators believed to increase the risks for sex trafficking among youth who are involved with child welfare. The article provides an overview of common risk indicators for trafficking, what is known about the intersection between human trafficking and the child welfare system, and current responses to trafficking through screening and assessment tools. Youth within the child welfare system are considered to be at risk of sex trafficking, and the experiences youth had that involved them with the child welfare system (e.g., physical or emotional abuse and neglect) are additional risk factors. One way to address human trafficking is by increasing the understanding of the vulnerabilities that put youth at risk of being victims.

The researchers examined substantiated child welfare case narratives that were pulled from a larger statewide study about human trafficking in Ohio. The narratives were coded to assess indicators using a directed content analysis that used a codebook based on over 100 human trafficking screening tools. Researchers wanted to know which human trafficking indicators in existing screening tools were captured in the child welfare narratives. This approach can help build and refine tools used in the child welfare system to identify and respond to human trafficking. 

Although there was variance in the narratives, sexual abuse, sex exchange, and running away were the most common vulnerability factors. Most screening variables were not represented in the narratives. The findings also showed that many of the human trafficking indicators were identified by caseworkers in the case narratives, which demonstrates the importance of having a standardized trafficking screening tool. 

These findings emphasize the need for standardized screening tools and a universal definition of human trafficking within the child welfare system, as it is challenging to determine the actual prevalence of human trafficking since the many social service, criminal justice, and public health agencies have different definitions (e.g., classifying a minor engaging in commercial sex as a criminal offender and not a trafficking victim) and accessible data. Being able to estimate the prevalence of human trafficking will help professionals understand who it affects most, where it is seen the most, and the context of the crimes and allow for more effective targeted prevention. 

The results of this study also show the importance of language, particularly the use of "prostitute" when referring to youth who have been sex trafficked. This implies criminality by the youth and not that the youth had been exploited. Differences between definitions of sex trafficking in state and federal laws further exacerbate language issues and proper identification of sex trafficking victims.

To learn more, read the study, "Learning From Child Welfare Case Narratives: A Directed Content Analysis of Indicators for Human Trafficking."