Written by Sarah Bousquet

Sarah Bousquet is a CHILD USA Research & Development Intern.



Children victimized and exploited by sex trafficking deserve to be protected from further traumatization. Vulnerable children are targeted by predators and are forced into sex trafficking across the United States. While federal law requires children under 18 in commercial sex to be considered victims of sex trafficking, children are still prosecuted for “prostitution” and crimes related to their victimization.[1]

Trafficking has been recognized as a form of illegal interstate and global commerce; protections for victims of child sex trafficking from criminalization should therefore be implemented on a federal level. Twenty-seven (27) states have enacted safe harbor laws to reduce the criminalization of child sex trafficking victims; however, only 10 of these states have comprehensive protections that prohibit arresting, detaining, charging, and prosecuting child victims.[2] It is essential to prevent children who have been exploited through sex trafficking from experiencing further harm and traumatization.

The welfare and protection of children is a nationally recognized human right, and yet children are vulnerable to sex trafficking and being criminalized for their experiences. Although reliable statistics regarding the prevalence of sexually trafficked children are not available, research suggests that between 100,000-300,000 children are at risk or are currently trafficked in commercial sex within the United States each year.[3] The quality and quantity of data regarding trafficked children is restricted by the hidden nature of the crime, the challenges of identifying victims, and other significant barriers.

Sex trafficking of minors occurs in all 50 states, and traffickers target vulnerable children experiencing compounding forms of discrimination and violence. There are disproportionate numbers of children of color and children who identify on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum targeted for sex trafficking.[5] These children often have already interacted with government-run programs, including runaway and homeless youth services, immigration enforcement, or foster care.[6] Risk factors for commercial sexual exploitation include foster care or child welfare involvement, history of child abuse, and homelessness.[7] Children exploited by sex trafficking have high rates of violence-inflicted injuries, sexually transmitted infections, and negative mental health outcomes.[8] Victims of domestic child sex trafficking report experiencing depression, dissociation, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder.[9]

Children victimized by sex trafficking are often arrested and prosecuted for crimes relating to their experiences of abuse. Children are repeatedly punished for soliciting sexual acts despite the fact they are too young to consent.[10] Children exploited by sex trafficking are also arrested for “masking crimes”—including status offenses like truancy or running away—that mask their victimization.[11]

Under federal law, children under 18 who are induced into providing commercial sex are victims of sex trafficking and should not be arrested or prosecuted.[12] However, since individual states vary in their definition of child sex trafficking, children are at risk of being punished for experiences of sexual abuse.[13] Research has found that between 31%-40% of commercial sexually exploited children involved in the juvenile legal system were treated as delinquents.[14] Criminalization and detention retraumatizes the victims, worsening their physical, mental, and emotional health outcomes.


Children exploited by sex trafficking often feel bonded or loyal to their abuser, and therefore may be reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement.[15] Perpetrators of sex trafficking will emotionally manipulate their victims as a tactic to control and isolate them.[16] Children exploited by this manipulation are therefore likely to feel protective of their abuser, and often don’t immediately recognize their experiences as trafficking. Law enforcement agencies are less likely to identify these children as victims, detaining them to provide “protection” or coerce cooperation.[17] Evidence of this treatment is furthered by reports from trafficked children, stating that they are not believed and have been denied services when attempting to report the experiences of sex trafficking.[18] There needs to be a shift how children exploited by commercial sex are perceived, as they are not juvenile offenders but victims in need of protective services.

While some Safe Harbor legislation reduces the criminalization of children who have been exploited by sex trafficking, less comprehensive legislation results in children being forced into the juvenile legal system, furthering their trauma, and jeopardizing their futures. Current federal legislature includes the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000[19]– last renewed in 2022[20]– but this act does not include comprehensive provisions to protect children from arrest or prosecution.

CHILD USA recommends the following to best protect children exploited by sex trafficking:

  1. Children who are detained for crimes relating to prostitution should be presumed as victims of commercial sexual exploitation. All interactions with these children should be based on the presumption of innocence, and they should be treated as victims of a serious crime. There should also be an ongoing window for survivors to vacate or expunge criminal convictions related to their trafficking experience.[21] When children exploited by sex trafficking are criminalized, they are more likely to experience lower education and economic outcomes, less stable housing, and higher rates of trauma.[22] Engaging with these children from a trauma-informed, victim-oriented lens will improve interactions with law enforcement and provide avenues for holding perpetrators accountable.[23]


  1. Resources should be dedicated to mandated trauma-informed training for employees and volunteers at child welfare and other government-run programs on the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Most of the children trafficked in the U.S. have interactions with child welfare services, but state child welfare programs often don’t have comprehensive trainings for staff and volunteers on identifying and responding to sex trafficked children. One study found that prior to a child welfare training program on the commercial sexual exploitation of children, only 37% of child protective service attendees strongly agreed that minors exploited by the sex trade should not be arrested.[24] Expanding the training mandate in TVPRA is vital to protect children. There should also be funding for trainings on interviewing child sex trafficking victims for first responders, law enforcement agencies, lawyers, judges, and other legal entities to protect child victims from criminalization for “prostitution” or other trafficking related crimes. Survivors have stated that interrogation can be retraumatizing, causing further harm for survivors of sex trafficking.[25] Required trauma-informed training will improve interactions and organizational ability to identify victims.


  1. Protecting children includes provisions for continuum of care, policy regarding victim-centered responses, and funding for states to implement these programs. This continuum of care provides protective factors against sex trafficking, including access to housing, mental health services, substance use treatment, and employment services.[26] Criminalization affects access to social services, future employment, and educational or economic outcomes, and arresting or holding victims in detention centers should never be considered appropriate.[27] Providing access to child welfare services, medical services including mental health treatments, and continuum of care including safe housing, is key to improve the outcomes for children exploited by sex trafficking.[28]

Children are currently being prosecuted and punished for being victims of sex trafficking. Children deserve to be safe from harm, protected from both predators and traumatization that occurs within the juvenile punishment system. It is vital that we end this criminalization to ensure the welfare and protection of all children in the United States.


[1] Congressional Research Service. (2021). Human trafficking: Key federal criminal statutes.


[2] Shared Hope. (2023). Safe harbor laws. Shared Hope International: Institute for Justice &

Advocacy. https://reportcards.sharedhope.org/safeharbor/

[3] Barnert, E. S., Abrams, S., Azzi, V. F., Ryan, G., Brook, R., & Chung, P. J. (2016).

Identifying best practices for “Safe Harbor” legislation to protect child sex trafficking victims: Decriminalization alone is not sufficient. Child Abuse & Neglect, 51, 249–262. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2015.10.002

[4] U.S. Department of State. (2022). About Human Trafficking.


[5] Gezinski, L. B. (2021). (De)criminalization of survivors of domestic minor sex trafficking: A

social work call to action. Social Work, 66(3), 236-244. https://doi-org.proxy.library.upenn.edu/10.1093/sw/swab015

[6] U.S. Department of State. (2022). Trafficking In Persons Report: July 2022.


[7] Barnert et al., 2016.

[8] Barnert et al., 2016.

[9] ‌Mehlman-Orozco, K. (2015). Safe harbor policies for juvenile victims of sex trafficking: A

myopic view of improvements in practice. Social Inclusion, 3(1), 52-62. DOI: 10.17645/si.v3i1.56

[10] Mir, T. (2013). Trick or treat: Why minors engaged in prostitution should be treated as victims,

not criminals. Family Court Review, 51(1), 163-177. https://doi-org.proxy.library.upenn.edu/10.1111/fcre.12016

[11] Cole, J., & Sprang, G. (2020). Post-implementation of Safe Harbor law in the U.S.: Review of

state administrative data. Child Abuse & Neglect, 101, 104320. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2019.104320

[12] Congressional Research Service, 2021.

[13] Gezinski, 2021.

[14] Gezinski, 2021.

[15] Smith, S. & Ranasinghe, K. (2015). Domestic child sex trafficking: Hidden in plain

sight. NCJFCJ Synergy, 18(1). https://www.ncjfcj.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/3169_NCJFCJ_Synergy_Newsletter_18_1.pdf

[16] Mir, 2013.

[17] Mehlman-Orozco, 2015.

[18] Gezinski, 2021.

[19] Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, 22 USC 7101 (2000)


[20] Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act of 2022, Pub. L. No. 117-

  1. (2022). https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/3949/text#toc-id8d6541c278a54e808301b0778e075f20

[21] Gezinski, 2021.

[22] Gezinski, 2021.

[23] Cole & Sprang, 2020.

[24] Gezinski, 2021.

[25] Gezinski, 2021.

[26] Gezinski, 2021.

[27] Gezinski, 2021.

[28] Gezinski, 2021.