Field Center at Penn Identifies Risk Factors Making Homeless Youth Vulnerable to Sex Trafficking

The Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research at the University of Pennsylvania joined forces with Covenant House, an agency dedicated to helping homeless youth, and Loyola University’s Modern Slavery Research Project to conduct a first-of-its-kind study on the prevalence of human trafficking among homeless youth.

Between February 2014 and March 2017, researchers from the three organizations interviewed nearly 1,000 homeless youth across 13 cities. The findings from this largest-ever combined sample of homeless youth in the United States and Canada, revealed that nearly one-fifth are victims of human trafficking, including those exploited for sex, labor or both.

In the overall study, researchers found that 19 percent of the interviewed youth were victims of human trafficking, with 15 percent having been trafficked for sex, which entails all commercial sex acts that involved force, fraud or coercion, or if a victim is under age 18. In addition, they found that while Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth accounted for only 19 percent of the respondents, they accounted for 34 percent of the sex-trafficking victims.

For the Field Center’s portion of the collaborative project, Debra Schilling Wolfe, the executive director, and Johanna Greeson, an assistant professor in Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice, served as co-principal investigators, interviewing nearly 300 homeless youth in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Phoenix. Their sample is comprised of homeless youth who are seeking assistance at Covenant House shelters in Philadelphia and Washington, and at other organizations in Phoenix, such as Tumbleweed, one•n•ten and Native American Connections.

“In addition to examining the prevalence of trafficking among homeless youth, this groundbreaking, academically rigorous study specifically focuses on the child-welfare-to-child trafficking pipeline,” Wolfe says.

As an interdisciplinary organization involving Penn’s schools of Social Policy & Practice, Law, Nursing and Perelman School of Medicine and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that concentrates on systemic child-welfare reform, the Field Center was able to take the research one step further by adding a child-welfare-focused second supplemental survey. Given to respondents who acknowledged being victims of sex trafficking or engaging in the sex trade to survive, the Center’s researchers were able to delicately dig deeper into their backgrounds.

The supplemental survey specifically asked questions about child-welfare-related variables, such as child-abuse history, the number of foster homes in which a respondent was placed and resilience factors.

“The goal is to identify the factors that can predict who is most at risk for sex trafficking,” Wolfe says. “This work can shape national policy and create effective interventions, thereby stemming the pipeline to predators and ultimately reducing the number of victims.”

Although still in the process of analyzing the data, the Field Center announced some of its preliminary findings, which are so far consistent with the research reported from the other major cities involved in the study. But, the newly developed supplemental survey provided sobering results.

Field Center researchers found that 95 percent of youth who were sex trafficked reported a history of child maltreatment and 49 percent of those indicated a history of childhood sexual abuse. Of those youth who were sex trafficked, 39 percent identified as LGBTQ, and transgender youth had the highest incidence.

In terms of the resilience factors that helped young people, researchers from the Field Center found that youth who reported the presence of a supportive adult in their lives and those who completed high school were less likely to be trafficked.

“With a better understanding of what places young people at risk for sex trafficking and what resilience factors lower that risk, new policy and practice initiatives can prevent further victimization,” Wolfe says.

The Field Center will unveil its complete research findings during a 90-minute presentation at the “One Child, Many Hands” national child-welfare conference June 8 at 1:45 p.m. at Penn Law, 3501 Sansom St.

Wolfe, along with Sarah Wasch, the program manager at the Field Center; David Howard, the senior vice president of research, evaluation and learning at Covenant House; and Jayne Bielsen, the director of Covenant House’s anti-human trafficking initiatives, will present “Incidents of Maltreatment and Child Welfare History of Victims of Child Sex Trafficking: Policy and Practice Implications.”

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