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Centering the Voices of Youth in Anti-Trafficking Efforts

By Kristina Rose, OVC Director
OVC Director Kristina Rose

When President Biden declared January 2022 as National Human Trafficking Prevention Month in his proclamation, he once again demonstrated his commitment to strengthening the nation’s response to human trafficking. The Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), part of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs (OJP), plays a key role in the government’s efforts to combat human trafficking and support and assist victims. As the largest federal funder of services to victims of human trafficking in the United States, OVC’s funding goes toward a broad range of anti-trafficking responses, such as direct services (including housing, legal assistance, employment, and mental health assistance), task force support, and training and technical assistance. As the anti-human trafficking field has grown, OVC’s programs and priorities have evolved to meet the most pressing challenges. One area of increasing focus is the support OVC provides to minor victims of sex and labor trafficking, as these young victims often face complex issues and have unique needs.

One of the complicated challenges that child sex trafficking victims may face is criminalization on account of their own exploitation. According to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, no force, fraud, or coercion need be present for a minor to be identified as a victim of sex trafficking. Yet, trafficked minors often first interact with criminal justice authorities through arrests, and may not readily be identified as crime victims. Numerous studies reveal that minor trafficking victims face arrest when they are coerced into criminal conduct as a result of their exploitation. This is especially true for Black, homeless, and LGBTQI+ youth, who report being targeted for arrest as a result of profiling on the basis of race, sexuality, and gender nonconformity.

Research also shows that minor sex trafficking victims’ justice involvement may be facilitated by well-meaning professionals and providers who view engagement with the criminal justice system as a means of getting victims away from their trafficker. But we must seek other options. OVC hopes to generate innovative approaches to address the criminalization of minor victims of sex trafficking with a new program it anticipates funding in Fiscal Year 2022.

While public attention in the U.S. often focuses on sex trafficking, which can lead to higher rates of identification, youth are also exploited for their labor. OVC grantees reported providing services to 285 minor victims of labor trafficking in 2020, compared to 2,332 minor victims of sex trafficking during the same time period. It’s clear that that more needs to be done to identify young victims of labor trafficking, some of whom are also coerced into engaging in criminal activity on behalf of their trafficker.

Recently, OJP announced a slate of important OVC grant awards totaling more than $17 million to support and assist minor victims of human trafficking, including grants to serve minor victims of sex trafficking and labor trafficking; funds to improve outcomes for child and youth victims; awards to enhance juvenile and family court responses; and an initiative designed to prevent the trafficking of girls. These grants are part of OJP’s larger $87 million commitment to combat human trafficking and provide supportive services to trafficking victims throughout the United States.

OVC funds also support the Research and Evaluation of Trafficking in Persons solicitation managed by OJP’s National Institute of Justice. Programs funded under this solicitation generate new information valuable to practitioners in developing and refining their responses to minor sex trafficking. For example, an award of almost $1 million was made to Northeastern University to advance research knowledge on health outcomes for minor sex trafficking survivors and improve the field’s understanding of factors that facilitate and impede health care access.

The services these grants fund are most effective when they treat victims as essential partners in their own healing. Those who have been directly impacted by a crime have the most to teach about how best to address their needs. And, for many victims, actively participating in decisions that will impact them helps them reestablish their trust in others and in themselves.

Working with minors, though, presents unique safety, confidentiality, and victim well-being concerns. For instance, responders with the best of intentions can sometimes inadvertently re-traumatize children, who may not even identify as being trafficked. In addition, overt outreach to trafficked youth may risk their safety. It is essential that service providers have policies and procedures that ensure safety and confidentiality, and that are responsive to the individual circumstances and the developmental needs of each child or youth.

OVC strongly encourages a survivor-informed and victim-centered approach to anti-trafficking work – the victim’s needs and wishes must be a priority. Many OVC grantees employ individuals with lived experience as leaders, practitioners, frontline staff, and paid consultants in their anti-trafficking efforts.

For example, OVC’s Preventing Sex Trafficking of Girls grantee, Youth Collaboratory, uses OVC funds to supports its Youth Catalyst Team (YCT). YCT is a national leadership initiative in which female-identifying youth and young adults (ages 16-24), who have had experiences with systems and services, leverage their lived expertise to provide training and technical assistance as paid consultants to service providers.

On January 24th, OVC hosted a virtual release of Child Victims and Witnesses Support Materials for young survivors of human trafficking. Created by the Center for Court Innovation and originally published by OVC in June 2021, the interactive and visually appealing materials are designed to assist children and youth, and the caregivers and professionals who help them, as they navigate the judicial system. Three graphic novels focus on young trafficking survivors’ experiences, plus an accompanying booklet about rights of victims, and roles and responsibilities of personnel within the justice system.

OVC is committed to listening to and learning from youth as we grow our human trafficking grant programs. During a recent OVC listening session, experts in the human trafficking and youth justice fields; professionals with lived experience; and, most importantly, youth themselves shared lessons and invaluable knowledge, which will inform OVC programming. By centering youth voices in OVC’s grant programs and ensuring equitable, inclusive, culturally responsive, and developmentally appropriate services are available to minor victims of human trafficking, we can help them access justice.

Date Published: January 31, 2022