Child Trafficking: Addressing Challenges to Public Awareness and Survivor Support

Why This Matters

Human traffickers can target children in the U.S. to exploit them sexually, force them into labor, or both. Children can be targeted due to their age and other factors that make them vulnerable. Children experiencing poverty, homelessness, and juvenile justice or child welfare involvement, as well as foreign national children who arrive unaccompanied to the U.S., may be at greater risk of victimization. Survivors of child trafficking may suffer harmful, long lasting effects, such as depression, suicidal thoughts, and substance use disorders.

There is limited data on the extent to which children are trafficked in the U.S. For instance, in 2021, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received reports of potential human trafficking involving over 3,000 potential victims who were children.However, many incidents may not be uncovered or reported. We were asked to review federal efforts to address child trafficking. This report examines challenges related to raising public awareness of child trafficking and supporting survivors. It also examines relevant federal programs managed by the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) and the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office on Trafficking in Persons (OTIP).

Key Takeaways

  • Stakeholders reported that public misperceptions of child trafficking hinder efforts to raise public awareness and support survivors. For example, misperceptions exist about which children are trafficked, how children are trafficked, and what support children need. Other reported challenges included providing services to children who are detained by law enforcement, a lack of services for certain populations (e.g., boys, survivors of labor trafficking, and foreign national children), and limited data and research on child trafficking and programs to combat it.
  • OVC and OTIP’s collaboration mechanisms focus broadly on individuals of all ages who have experienced trafficking, but the offices do not have a collaboration mechanism dedicated to child trafficking. We recommend that the offices establish a collaboration mechanism focused solely on child trafficking. Doing so could better enable the offices to overcome challenges specific to children and meet the distinct needs of child trafficking survivors.
  • OVC and OTIP have set strategic goals for their anti-trafficking programs for children. OTIP is also developing performance goals, but OVC has no plans to do so. We recommend that OVC establish performance goals to better measure the progress of its programs.

What is child trafficking and how does it happen?

Child trafficking generally refers to human trafficking involving individuals under the age of 18. As mentioned above, children may be trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation, forced labor, or both. Child sex trafficking occurs when a child is asked or made to engage in a sex act in exchange for anything of value—such as money, controlled substances, or shelter, regardless of the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Child labor trafficking occurs when force, fraud, or coercion is used to obtain labor or services from a child for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

Children may be trafficked by their own family members, romantic partners, peers, employers, acquaintances, and strangers. Traffickers recruit children in a range of settings, including in person and online. Also, traffickers often build trust with children over time and establish control over them, while subjecting them to abuse. Figure 1 provides an overview and examples of child trafficking.

Who are child traffickers?! Individuals who exploit children for forced labor or commercial sex may be strangers, or known and trusted individuals, including:

  • family members or friends
  • romantic partners
  • individuals involved in organized crime (e.g. pimps)
  • employers

What factors may make a child at greater risk for experiencing trafficking?

Any child can be at risk of experiencing trafficking, but some are at greater risk, including children who are:

  • missing from home
  • experiencing homelessness
  • involved in juvenile justice or child welfare systems
  • recent arrivals to the U.S., and unaccompanied


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