Human Trafficking Into and Within the United States: A Review of the Literature. Other Populations at Risk for Trafficking: Runaway and Homeless Youth


According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Uniform Crime Reports (2006), across the United States 36,402 boys and 47,472 girls younger than age 18 were picked up by law enforcement and identified as runaways.  Girls who run from their homes, group homes, foster homes, or treatment centers, are at great risk of being targeted by a pimp (or trafficker) and becoming exploited.  Research consistently confirms the correlation between running away and becoming exploited through prostitution.  Researchers have found that the majority of prostituted women had been runaways; for example, 96 percent in San Francisco (Silbert & Pines, 1982), 72 percent in Boston (Norton-Hawk, 2002) and 56 percent in Chicago (Raphael & Shapiro, 2002).  Among prostituted youth (both boys and girls), up to 77 percent report having run away at least once (Seng, 1989).  Experts have reported that within 48 hours of running away, an adolescent is likely to be approached to participate in prostitution or another form of commercial sexual exploitation (Spangenberg, 2001); however, no definitive published research substantiates this claim.

Like girls, boys exploited through prostitution are most often runaways or throwaways (Flowers, 2001; Lankenau et al., 2005; Moxley-Goldsmith, 2005). For example, one study found that two-thirds of males exploited through prostitution had run away from home prior to becoming involved (Allen, 1980).  While many of the factors leading to a young person leaving home are similar for boys and girls, it is estimated that between 40 and 50 percent of boys exploited through prostitution had been thrown out of their homes because of sexual identity issues (Earls & David, 1989; Seattle Commission on Children and Youth, 1986).  Approximately 2535 percent of prostituted boys self-identify as gay, bisexual, or transgender/transsexual (Estes & Weiner, 2001).  Further, regardless of the boys self-identification, at least 95 percent of all prostitution engaged in by boys is provided to adult men (Estes & Weiner, 2001).  Regardless of their sex, when minors leave their homes, it is to protect themselves, often because they view living on the streets as either less dangerous or no more dangerous than staying at home (Hyde, 2005; Martinez, 2006).

Once on the street, homeless youth are at risk for being victimized because they lack the funds, interpersonal and job skills, and support systems necessary to survive on their own (Martinez, 2006).  Having often come from chaotic families, runaways tend to lack strategies for problem solving, conflict resolution, and meeting basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter (Martinez, 2006; Robertson & Toro, 1999; Whitbeck, Hoyt, & Yoder, 1999).  Some minors turn to substance abuse, crime, and survival sex to meet their basic needs (Greene, Ennett, & Ringwald, 1999; Riley, Greif, Caplan, & MacAulay, 2004; Robertson & Toro, 1999).  Furthermore, exposure to the dangers of the street makes them more visible and vulnerable to traffickers, and their risky lifestyles and routines put them at greater risk of being victimized (Kipke, Simon, Montgomery, Unger, & Iversen, 1997; MacLean, Embry, & Cauce, 1999; Tyler, Cauce, & Whitbeck, 2004).

Most runaway/throwaway youth are likely to run to and congregate in urban areas, so it is not surprising that there is general consensus that a greater percentage of minors are exploited in the U.S. sex industry in urban areas, though they may be brought from suburban and rural areas (Flowers, 2001). However, an increase in minor arrests in suburban counties/areas and rural areas has experts speculating that the increase is indicative of an expansion of prostitution beyond city limits (Flowers, 2001).  While these data are somewhat outdated, anecdotal evidence from service providers indicates that this trend continues (A. Adams, personal communication, March 2006; N. Hotaling, personal communication, June 2006).  However, further research is needed to determine whether the increase in suburban arrests is due to better identification or an actual increase in incidence.

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