Domestic Human Trafficking and the Child Welfare Population

Studying the roots of victimization and improving screening practices to protect young children

Attention to human trafficking has surged over the past decade, particularly with regard to the trafficking of children for sex or labor. Those most familiar with the lives of vulnerable children recognize the shared risk factors and overlapping trajectories that connect child maltreatment and child trafficking victimization. These points of intersectionality identify what are likely to be the most promising opportunities as RTI International partners with ACF’s Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE) and the Children’s Bureau (CB) to lead efforts to prevent, identify, and respond to child trafficking victimization.

The Domestic Human Trafficking and the Child Welfare Population project provides immediate support and long-term guidance for these efforts by compiling the existing knowledge base and identifying relevant policy and practice, developing a research agenda and plan for near-term efforts, and conducting studies that can immediately guide practice. The RTI project team has collaborated closely with OPRE and CB to:

  • Review prior research on risk factors and trajectories for human trafficking among children who have experienced maltreatment;
  • Summarize state child welfare policies, training efforts, screening tools, services, and data resources related to human trafficking in the child welfare population;
  • Assess existing survey datasets and national data systems relevant to child welfare and human trafficking;
  • Critically review promising approaches that would benefit from further evaluation and data resources that could support additional research; and
  • Prepare a report to Congress, The Child Welfare System Response to Sex Trafficking of Children, which summarizes current understanding and efforts in areas addressed by the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (PSTSFA) of 2014.

Two research studies are planned within this project:

  • Human trafficking victimization is frequently associated with child abuse or neglect and child welfare system involvement, including out-of-home placements. However, the existing literature says little about why some youth who have experienced maltreatment go on to experience human trafficking victimization, while many more do not. RTI will survey young adults who have recently been in foster care, including those at high risk for trafficking. This study will inform child welfare policies, programs, and practice by identifying the risk and protective factors associated with increased or decreased risk of trafficking victimization, respectively; and the context surrounding victimization.
  • Screening is an essential first step in connecting victims with needed services. RTI’s review of state child welfare policies and practices indicate that state practice is evolving rapidly in response to the PSTSFA requiring that child welfare agencies identify trafficking victimization and connect children to specialized services. However, little is known about how initial screenings impact placement and service decisions. This study will explore child welfare practice in screening for human trafficking, and the degree to which screening is related to subsequent referrals for, access to, and delivery of specialized services for children identified as trafficking victims or at high risk of trafficking.

Ultimately, work conducted in this project will yield important information to guide child welfare agency policies and programs to protect children from the devastation of human trafficking.