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Traffickers look for three (3) things when selecting a potential victim: accessibility, suggestibility, and vulnerability. 


...refers to the traffickers’ ability to gain and maintain access to an intended victim during the course of recruiting and manipulating them into an exploitive scenario. This is typically accomplished through social media and other electronic communications platforms.  Traffickers have continuous, and often times unsupervised, access to their intended victims.  


...refers to the societal influences of the intended victim that can be used to “normalize” the exploitive behavior.  In sex trafficking this is often accomplished through the false glamorization of the commercial sex industry which is often not accompanied by education regarding the very physical, emotional, and psychological impact sex work can have on a person.  With regards to exploitive labor, or labor trafficking, this can be accomplished by suggesting that this is the only option available to a person in a vulnerable state – a convicted felon who struggles to find employment, a foreign national who has to provide life-dependent medicine to a family member in the country of origin, or many other scenarios.  

Vulnerability... the factor in a victim’s life that the trafficker uses to leverage that person – vulnerability and suggestibility are often interconnected.  These vulnerabilities often become the social determinants which lead to victimization and should be the focus of prevention efforts.

The traffickers often focus their recruitment efforts on children because of particular vulnerabilities that impressionable young people possess. These vulnerabilities, or social determinants, fall into four main categories: economic vulnerabilities, victims of prior abuse (sexual or physical), situational vulnerabilities (homeless or runaway children), and “other at-risk”, which includes children with low self-esteem, attention-seeking youth, children from homes lacking stability or children who lack an understanding of healthy relationships.

It is essential to understand that these “other at-risk” youth are the children in every school, every neighborhood, every church and youth group and potentially in any home.  The dynamics of family have changed over the past few decades, and the traffickers have taken note, exploiting those changes in dynamics to draw young people into a life of servitude through false promises and coercion.  In these instances, the traffickers never have to provide their victims with monetary rewards; rather they offer love and affection to a child who is not being fulfilled at home.

It can be challenging to sympathize or understand how a person is coerced or induced into engaging in commercial sex or exploitive labor by someone simply taking advantage of their personal vulnerabilities. Regardless, it is important to remember that the victimization is the same, whether physical force is utilized or the more pervasive forms of mental manipulation. Arguably, coercion to induce someone into a life of servitude and slavery delivers a greater degree of psychological damage because the person was manipulated to believe that they were complicit in their own victimization.  In situations where the victim believes that they agreed to engage in the conduct, there is an increase in self-blame and personal shame on the part of the victim .  This complex trauma is very difficult to clinically diagnosis and effectively treat, often times frustrating the child’s treatment plan and hindering progress to restoring the child to a state of normalcy, as generally accepted by society.

Traffickers employ a large amount of psychological manipulation as a means of power and control over their victim. As a result, the victims are made to believe that they consented to their own victimization, and in some instances, they believe that they themselves are the offenders. In this way, victims of trafficking will rarely seek help or report these cases to the proper authorities .

What the Research Tells Us:

Studies show that a strong determinant of a child’s vulnerability to trafficking is their home situation.  One homeless youth organization partnered with researchers at Arizona State University to investigate the prevalence of sex trafficking experienced among the homeless youths who received services from the organization and two community-based organizations like it.  Their study revealed that 35.8% of the 215 victims they surveyed reported a history of sex trafficking.  The nonprofit, non-governmental organization Polaris, which works to combat and prevent human trafficking and modern-day slavery, and runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, led a “survivor survey” revolving around their experiences with systems and industries.  Polaris received responses from 127 survivors, 64% of whom reported being homeless or experiencing unstable housing at the point in their life when they were coerced into trafficking.  While this survey included victims who entered into a trafficking situation past the age of 48, over half of the survivors reported that they had been forced into trafficking before the age of twenty-three.

The largest-ever research studies conducted to look at homelessness in youth fell under the auspices of Covenant House International, the largest privately funded agency in the Americas dedicated to providing a range of care to homeless children between the ages of 14 and 20: nearly 1,000 homeless youth between the ages of 17 and 25 were sampled across 13 cities throughout the United States and Canada.  Between the two studies that comprised Covenant House’s initiative, close to one fifth of those interviewed reported being victims of trafficking.  Fifteen percent reported they were trafficked for sex (this includes youth who were not necessarily coerced but were minors), 7.4% reported that they engaged in labor trafficking, and 3 percent reported being victim to both.

One of the two studies, conducted by the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research for Covenant House, consisted of interviews with 270 homeless youth across three cities.  The Field Center discovered that 95 percent of those they interviewed who were sex trafficked had a history of childhood maltreatment.  Their interviews also revealed that 41 percent of the youth who were sex trafficked had at least one out-of-home placement at some point in their lives.  Many of them experienced moving frequently during their childhood.  In contrast, the youth interviewed who reported having supportive adults present in their lives were less likely to be sex trafficked than their unsupported counterparts.

Dr. Laura T. Murphy of the Modern Slavery Research Project--the other research partner involved in Covenant House’s initiative--said they found through their study that “youth were seeking what we all seek - shelter, work, security - and that traffickers preyed on those very needs.”  Independent from Covenant House’s efforts, the National Human Trafficking Hotline cites the lack of a strong supportive network as a notable cause that leads runaway and homeless youths to enter unfamiliar environments that put them especially at risk of trafficking.  Traffickers target these youth at shelters, transportation hubs, and other public spaces, often feigning affection and manipulation to draw in their victims to elicit commercial sex or services.  These predators will give their victims the false impression of becoming their significant other and play to the youths’ need for love and social acceptance to the point where the victim becomes completely reliable on their trafficker for basic survival necessities.

The common theme throughout these cases is the lack of a strong support network.  The failure of a young person to be offered stability and structure which supports healthy childhood development and resiliency.