Child Sex Trafficking: How to Take Action Through Prevention and Reporting

When I first learned about human trafficking, I thought it was associated with other countries. It wasn’t until I had lunch with a former colleague that I realized the risk to our children and students here in the United States.

In fact, incidents of trafficking have been reported in all 50 states. Informing parents, schools, and the public about this problem is critical to recognizing victims and also helps with prevention efforts by educating children about common ways traffickers get them involved.

What is Trafficking?

There are two different types of human trafficking: labor and sex. Human trafficking is defined as “(A) sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or (B) the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.” [U.S.C. §7102(8)]

An important point to note is that force, fraud, or coercion is not required in cases involving children under 18 years of age. Sex trafficking includes commercial sex, stripping, pornography, escort services, prostitution, erotic massages, online exploitation, etc.

What are the risk factors?

It sounds too simple, but any child can be at risk. Although the typical age range is between 12 and 17 years old, children as young as 9 years old have been identified as targets.

Research has indicated an elevated vulnerability for children who experience homelessness, have a history of child abuse, lack an adult support system, are involved in the juvenile justice or foster care system, and/or identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, 2013). Children who do not seem to fall into any of these categories have also fallen victim to child sex trafficking.

Traffickers who prey on children have savvy ways to gain their trust. For example, they may provide attention and compliments, a promise to fulfill their dreams, and gifts. Victims may not even recognize they are being groomed and are well into sex trafficking before they realize what is truly happening.

Social/Behavioral Red Flags

  • Significantly older boyfriend
  • Sudden changes in peer group
  • Substance abuse
  • Change in attitude
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Compliant/submissive
  • Running away often
  • Unexplained school absences

Physical Red Flags

  • Unexplained bruises, signs of physical abuse
  • Small tattoo or marking
  • Poor health, may include sexually transmitted diseases, malnutrition

Additional Red Flags

  • Expensive possessions or money
  • Fake ID
  • Lack of control of schedule

Child Sex Trafficking Prevention

Since we know that our children are at risk, prevention is key.

1. School curriculum
Schools need to implement into the curriculum strategies for recognizing the tactics used by traffickers and how to respond. As a former middle school counselor, many of my former students wanted to be models and could easily fall victim to a man or a peer (yes, teenagers can also be traffickers) who promised a modeling career and offered to take their pictures to help them pursue their dreams. Teaching our children to recognize these tactics and helping them to role play how to respond may protect them from victimization.

Additionally, it is important to teach them how to recognize the red flags and how to seek help from an adult if they notice a friend is showing signs of being trafficked. Some curriculum resources available include:

  • Commodities High School Curriculum
  • The Not for Sale Campaign’s High School Curriculum
  • The Prevention Project
  • TeachUNICEF’s Child Trafficking Curriculum

2. Community Response
As a volunteer for the Child Advocacy Center, I facilitate education sessions on child sex trafficking. Schools, libraries, community groups, churches, law enforcement, and other organizations have the opportunity to collaborate and develop parent education meetings and community-wide meetings to educate parents and the general public on prevention and intervention efforts.

Educational materials can also be posted in public places, such as schools and community locations. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security provides some excellent resources through the Blue Campaign. Additional awareness activities could include public service announcements and screenings of documentaries, such as Chosen.


If sex trafficking is suspected, it is not advisable to confront the situation directly, but to seek out the support of agencies that are equipped to investigate and protect our children. Schools need to identify a procedure for reporting and collaborating with local agencies to establish an effective process of communication.

The U.S. Department of Education recommends the following contacts if you suspect trafficking:

About the Author

Dr. Kimberlee Ratliff holds an Ed.D. in Counseling Psychology, M.Ed. in School Counseling, and B.S. in Psychology. She has been with APUS since September 2010, and is an associate professor and program director of School Counseling. She is a National Certified Counselor (NCC), National Certified School Counselor (NCSC), K-12 Certified School Counselor (VA) and Trauma and Loss School Specialist with 12 years of experience as an elementary and middle school counselor.

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