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Is Your Teen at Risk of Human Trafficking?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

Child trafficking is a serious problem in the U.S. and worldwide.

This abhorrent practice almost disappeared in the U.S. in the 1990s, but is back, and increasing every year. The return of child trafficking is directly related to the prevalence of the internet, smartphones, and social media/messaging technology. Texting and messaging technology appeared in the late 1990s, grew in popularity in the 2000s, then exploded between 2010 and 2012 with the appearance of smartphones – the iPhone was released in 2007 – social media apps, and the direct messaging technology related to social media apps and their derivatives.

In 2021, we know that most youth and teens in the U.S. have access to these technologies at home, at school, and on their personal devices, which they may carry with them for the majority of their waking hours. Because modern traffickers often use these technologies to target youth and teens, that means that any youth or teen with access to a computer or smartphone is as potential victim.

That’s a frightening, sobering thought.

While the name implies the meaning, we should, nevertheless, answer a question you may have before we continue:

What exactly is child trafficking?

The Trafficking Prevention page at the website defines child trafficking – also known as youth trafficking – as follows:

“Trafficking of youth is a form of modern slavery within the United States. It is a crime involving the exploitation of U.S. citizen/resident or noncitizen youth for the purpose of compelled labor or a commercial sex act through the use of force, fraud, or coercion, regardless of whether the trafficker or the victim crossed state or international borders. If a person younger than 18 is induced to perform a commercial sex act, it is a crime regardless of whether there is force, fraud, or coercion.”

That’s what youth trafficking is. They say it in plain, unvarnished language for all of us to see: it’s a form of modern slavery. The thought is repugnant to anyone. If you’re a parent, it’s the worst nightmare imaginable: your child or teen abducted or coerced into performing sexual acts or labor against their will. We shudder internally at the thought: but our emotion will not help.

Knowing the facts will.

Taking action will.

That’s the purpose of this article. We’ll share facts with you so you can prevent the unthinkable and unspeakable from happening to your child. We’ll include the latest statistics on human trafficking in the U.S., and provide a list of risk factors for vulnerable teens, warning signs that your teen may be being groomed or set up, and what you can do if you think someone is targeting your teen for any form or trafficking or coercion. You can share these facts with friends, community members, and anyone interested in working to stop the practice of human trafficking, which is, as clearly stated above, a form of modern slavery.

Human Trafficking in the U.S.: Facts and Figures

These are the latest confirmed statistics on human trafficking available, as reported by The National Human Trafficking Hotline (NHTH). We’ll start with the overall, big-picture numbers on human trafficking in the U.S.

Since 2007: Calls and Cases to the NHTH

  • NHTH received 328,255 contacts warning of potential cases of human trafficking
  • NHTH reported 73,946 cases of human trafficking
    • 64,718 included evidence of force, fraud, or coercion

Now let’s take a close look at the last year for which we have complete data, 2020. The NHTH received 51,667 contacts related to human trafficking, and reports 10,583 verified cases of human trafficking. Here’s how those figures break down.

2020: Detailed Data on Human Trafficking (Number of Cases)

  • Type of Trafficking:
    • Sex: 7,648
    • Labor: 1,052
    • Sex and Labor: 334
    • Unspecified: 1,549
  • Context/Venue/Industry:
    • Sex:
      • Pornography: 939
      • Massage/spa: 616
      • Hotel/Motel-Based Commercial Sex: 520
      • Residence-Based Commercial Sex: 465
      • Unknown: 447
    • Labor:
      • Domestic work: 202
      • Agriculture: 83
      • Construction: 65
      • Illegal activities: 62
    • By Gender:
      • Female: 8,447
      • Male: 1,257
      • Gender Minority: 86
    • By Age:
      • Adult: 6,423
      • Minor: 2,488

Those are the overall numbers. Included in these figures are the youth and teens who are most vulnerable: BIPOC teens, LGBTQIA+ teens, homeless teens, and runaways. A non-profit organization called Thorn, founded by two influential film/TV celebrities, works to prevent the increase in child trafficking, with a focus on these most vulnerable populations.

Thorn collected and published the following information on child/youth trafficking among these vulnerable demographics:

  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) indicates that 52% of arrests for commercial sex acts with minors involve African American minors.
  • The STAR Court in Los Angeles, CA, a special court for sex trafficking victims, indicates that 91% of the girls involved in commercial sex trafficking cases involving minors are African American or Latino.
  • Data shows that at least 50% of child sex trafficking victims received services from the child welfare system
  • Studies on homeless youth in New York City show:
    • 25% of LGBTQ homeless youth report being victims of sex trafficking
    • 50% of gay or bisexual boys report being victims of sex trafficking
  • Studies on runaway youth show:
    • An estimated 14% of runaway youth are likely to be victims of sex trafficking

That’s the scope of the problem, with an overview of who the victims are and who’s most vulnerable. Let’s be clear: all teens and youth with access to the internet are potential victims. Among those, teens and youth in ethnic, sexual, and gender minorities are the most at risk.

Let’s explore those risk factors now.

Youth Sex Trafficking: Known Risk Factors

Here’s a reminder of the various ways traffickers exploit youth and teens. Traffickers may force or coerce youth or teens into:

  • Prostitution
  • Survival sex: trading food and shelter for sex
  • Sex tourism
  • Performing in strip clubs, peep shows, or sex clubs
  • Domestic labor
  • Commercial labor
  • Debt bondage

Traffickers use several different techniques to keep exploited youth and teens under their control. They may physically restrain them, keep them in locked rooms, isolate them completely, control their money, threaten their families, confiscate documents such as passports, threaten with shame, or threaten to turn them into police for crimes they were forced to commit.

As we said: it’s a nightmare scenario.

That’s why we want you to know the factors that increase risk of victimization. Experts divide risk factors for youth and teens related to human trafficking into four categories:


  • History of abuse, neglect, maltreatment
  • Homelessness
  • Runaway
  • History of involvement with juvenile justice system
  • History of involvement with child welfare system


  • Family conflict
  • Disruptive/disrupted/unstable home environment
  • Dysfunctional family dynamics


  • Social isolation
  • Peer pressure
  • Social norms
  • Involvement in gangs
  • Under-resourced:
    • Schools
    • Neighborhoods
    • Community services


  • Lack of resources to combat sex trafficking
  • Absence of awareness about:
    • Commercial exploitation of youth and children
    • Sex trafficking

All those factors increase risk for youth and teens. If your teen meets any of the criteria above, then it’s important for you to know the warning signs that may indicate they’re involved in sexual exploitation or may already be a trafficking victim:

  • Frequent unexplained absences from school
  • Repeated instances of running away from home
  • Talks about traveling to places you never took them
  • Presence of bruises or signs of physical abuse
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Uncharacteristic depression, fear, and anxiety
  • Signs of illicit drug use or addiction

Look for these signs in other youth or teens:

  • Missing documents: passport, state ID cards
  • Hungry, malnourished, or inappropriately dressed for weather/season
  • Responds to questions with obviously rehearsed answers
  • Oversexualized/uncharacteristic awareness of sex/sex talk/sexual situations for their age and level of development
  • Has a boyfriend or girlfriend who is much older

Look for these signs in other youth and teens while traveling:

  • Does not have control over their travel documents
  • Does not make eye contact with:
    • Strangers
    • Their traveling companion
    • Transportation workers: for example, TSA workers or airline gate attendants
  • Has no apparent awareness of where they’re going or why

Those are the warning signs compiled by people who work with sex trafficking victims every day. If you see these warning signs in your teenager or another youth or teenager, you can take action. In fact, law enforcement wants to you take action as soon as possible.

But what should you do?

How To Report Human Trafficking, Suspected Human Trafficking, or Sexual Exploitation of Minors

If you suspect your teen is a victim of sexual exploitation or a human trafficker is actively grooming, recruiting, or setting up your teenager for sexual exploitation or other forms of trafficking, here are the steps you should take, as recommended by federal law enforcement officials.

For immediate emergencies:

  • Call 911 or local emergency law enforcement services

Report suspected international trafficking to law enforcement:

To report suspected trafficking to a non-governmental organization:

To report abused or sexually exploited minors:

  • Contact the National Child Abuse Hotline at:
    • 1-800-4-A-CHILD or 1-800-422-4453
  • Contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s (NCMEC) at:
    • 1-800-THE-LOST or 1-800-843-5678
  • Report incidents of child abuse or exploitation to:

If you see something, say something. Law enforcement indicates that a primary reason human traffickers successfully engage in this type of exploitation is that people simply aren’t aware it may be happening near them, and have no idea what to look for. Here’s what law enforcement says:

  • It can happen anywhere and to anyone
  • Look for the signs above, and if you see something, say something

We all want to end human trafficking. It’s barbaric. For most of us, it’s hard to imagine that it exists in the 21st century, in the United States, and in our backyards. For example, in the affluent suburb of Dunwoody, just north of Atlanta, Georgia, 30 adults were arrested on charges of sex trafficking over Super Bowl weekend in 2019. Then, this year in Atlanta, 28 teen victims were rescued from sex trafficking as part of a nationwide, FBI-led sting operation.

We include these two examples because Dunwoody is classic suburban U.S.: it’s where Ryan Seacrest grew up. And Atlanta is one of the fastest-growing, diverse cities in the country. If trafficking happens there, it happens everywhere.

If you’re a parent, we talked about what you can do if you see warning signs of exploitation or trafficking in your teen or teens you know.

But what can we, as a society do to stop human trafficking?

How We Can All Help

A report published by the Institute of Medicine (IOC) and National Research Council (NRC) called  “Confronting Commercial Sexual Exploitation and Sex Trafficking of Minors in the United States” included an comprehensive analysis of minor sex trafficking. The report concludes:

“Commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors in the United States are commonly overlooked, misunderstood, and unaddressed forms of child abuse.”

At the end of the report, the authors outlined six steps that we need to take to end human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of minors:

  1. Raise awareness and knowledge about the existence of the problem
  2. Enhance support and protection for victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking across all federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies
  3. Enhance law enforcement resources for investigating, arresting, and prosecuting anyone who exploits, engages in trafficking, and/or solicits the sexual exploitation of minors.
  4. Improve and expand research to “understand, prevent, and intervene” in the sexual exploitation or trafficking of minors
  5. Improve communication and coordination across local, federal, and state law enforcement and non-governmental organizations working to end sexual exploitation/trafficking of minors
  6. Create a digital platform for the aforementioned agencies to share information and improve and coordinate prevention efforts

If we work together, keep our eyes open, and pay attention to what our teens and their peers are doing and saying, we can end human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of minors. For us, as mental health treatment professionals, and for you, as parents, the most important thing – after awareness – is this simple action step:

If you see something, say something.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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