Finding a Path to Recovery: Residential Facilities for Minor Victims of Domestic Sex Trafficking. What are Current Challenges and Limitations to Serving this Population?


Law enforcement and health and social services providers working with this population acknowledged several challenges and limitations to effectively meeting the needs of these girls. Overarching challenges include:

  • Difficulty identifying victims. The hidden nature of the crime and the use of the Internet by traffickers make identifying victims challenging. Additionally, the lack of standard protocols for identifying potential victims coming in contact with law enforcement, child protective case workers, street outreach workers, drop-in centers, school counselors, and emergency shelters was problematic. Perhaps the greatest challenge was the lack of recognition of these minors as victims. It was reported that many law enforcement, child protective services workers, and shelter providers believed that these girls had chosen to become involved in prostitution and therefore should be held accountable for their criminal actions. The stigma associated with prostitution was evident across many of the respondents in this study, including the minors themselves. It was reported that the girls did not view themselves as victims and, in many cases, stated that they did not want help. Viewing these minors as victims of domestic sex trafficking instead of criminals or prostitutes represents a huge paradigm shift that has occurred in statute, but not in practice.
  • Lack of understanding of domestic human trafficking. A significant challenge reported by all was the lack of knowledge and understanding that human trafficking can occur domestically. Specifically, many providers described human trafficking as a crime that happened to immigrants. The relationship between the prostitution of minors and human trafficking was not well understood by most providers. Not only did this impact the ability to identify victims, but it impacted the ability of staff to provide appropriate services to meet the needs of these girls.
    Shelter providers are not trained to serve this population. Shelters are equipped for runaways; not trafficking victims.
    Law enforcement
  • Inadequate services.  Across the board, it was clear that the services provided to this population were inadequate. In some runaway and homeless youth shelter programs, the time restrictions on the length of stay imposed by funding sources made it impossible to build trust with the girls, let alone begin any meaningful treatment. Additionally, the diversity of the minors in shelter programs and group homes made it difficult to tailor services for a specific population. Within juvenile detention facilities, treatment plans were often aligned with the criminal charges  often crimes unrelated to prostitution (e.g., curfew violations, truancy, shoplifting, runaway)  and, therefore, they were ineffective in addressing the real issues facing these girls. For minors placed in foster care or group homes, once again, the sexual exploitation was often not recognized and, therefore, the trauma and related problems were not treated.
    The short-term nature of the stay is a real challenge for raising issues like prostitution. We provide a lot of band-aids.
    Service provider
  • Safety concerns.  The issue of safety for staff, other residents, and the girls themselves was expressed across sites. In the case of runaway and homeless shelters and drop-in centers, the location was often known to the trafficker. In fact, several sites reported cases of traffickers recruiting girls outside the facilities or, in some cases, girls being sent into the shelters to recruit other girls. Not all programs were equipped to handle these situations.

Another challenge was the flight risk that these girls posed for law enforcement and the programs working with them. Law enforcement and providers described how a girl usually believed she was in love with her trafficker and felt compelled to return to him, out of this love or out of fear of retribution if she didnt return. This is a facet of the powerful trauma bond created with her abuser, which is one form of the Stockholm Syndrome  an extreme form of PTSD otherwise most frequently seen in torture victims. Additionally, providers reported that these girls often feel like there is nothing they are good at outside of The Life; which is the term girls often use to describe their experiences with prostitution. This belief that their value lies in being an object of sexual abuse  a belief often first developed as a child sexual abuse victim  often compels a victim to return to her perpetrator and The Life. One residential provider spoke of the immediate gratification or lure associated with street life in general, and prostitution in particular; something difficult for any program to compete with. Furthermore, for the majority of girls, their current situation includes a sense of belonging that feels better than where they were before they were recruited and includes various perks such as trips to different states, nice clothing and jewelry, etc.

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