An Overview of Child Trafficking

By Nicole Caldwell, Undergraduate Student: B.A. in French with a minor in Political Science, University of Missouri in St. Louis (UMSL); Gateway Human Trafficking Intern

Did you know that 1 in 4 victims of human trafficking worldwide are children? (1)

In honor of Child Abuse Prevention Month, this article will examine legal definitions of child abuse and trafficking, tactics used by traffickers, warning signs, and long-term effects.

Child abuse can be defined as any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker that results in death, physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse/exploitations, or creates the threat of immanent harm (2). This definition was modified in 2015 to include child trafficking. Thus, trafficking is a form of child abuse. Sadly, any child could become a victim of trafficking. However, there are several risk factors that increase a child’s likelihood of being trafficked. These include (but are not limited to) prior incidents of sexual or physical abuse, experience in the foster care system, a history of running away from home, intellectual and physical disabilities, LGBTQ+ identity, and undocumented immigration status. Why are these children particularly vulnerable? Many of these children lack resources such as reliable housing, food, water or might have strained relationships with relatives.

Traffickers prey on these vulnerabilities, often offering them resources, to gain the trust of the child before exploiting them. For example, many LGBTQ+ children lack social support from family or peers. A trafficker might befriend them and offer support only to later use this emotional bond to manipulate the child. A child with a prior history of abuse might perceive abusive behavior as “normal” thus making it easier for traffickers to further victimize them.

Traffickers often appear generous by offering shelter and other resources but quickly halt their generosity once they have gained the trust of the victim.

The aforementioned tactics are all examples of a psychological tactic known as grooming. Both child abusers and human traffickers use this method to gain the confidence of their victim before exploiting them. Grooming commonly occurs online on social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat. In 2017, 81% of Internet prostitution cases involved minors. The Internet can be used to initiate contact with and groom minors and as a marketplace to exploit them (3). It is a common myth that children are usually trafficked by a stranger. Most child victims of trafficking and abuse are familiar with their abuser. In 2019, around 77% of U.S. child abuse cases were perpetrated by parents (4). The Counter-Trafficking Data Collective estimates that relatives are involved in approximately 41% of child trafficking cases (5).

It is important to recognize common signs of child trafficking and abuse because children typically do not report their trafficker. In 2019, professionals including doctors, educators, and law enforcement officials reported 68.6% of suspected child abuse cases (6). This shows the importance of educating all members of our community to recognize suspicious behaviors and signs that could save a child’s life. Some signs include: dental problems caused by malnutrition, an atypical amount of STIs or sexual partners at a young age, bruising/scrapes on the body, and recent possession of expensive items (manicures, multiple phones).

Children tend to remain silent about their abuse due to the formation of trauma bonds. Trauma bonding occurs when a trafficker fluctuates between periods of positive reinforcement and abuse. They might convince the child that they “deserved” the abuse and will reward them with items or affection if they comply with the abuser’s demands. Children might be reluctant to share details about their abuse because they care about their trafficker due to trauma bonding. They might fear that their family could be separated or ruined, they might feel embarrassment or shame, or they might fear that the trafficker will harm them or their family. In the event that a child is rescued from trafficking or abuse, trauma accrued as a result of these experiences can continue to plague a child for the remainder of their life. Trauma can impede development in areas of the brain responsible for critical thinking, emotional regulation, and memory (7). These alterations can increase the likelihood a child will struggle with substance abuse and mental illnesses like depression and anxiety in the future. A study in the United Kingdom discovered that 27% of child trafficking attempted suicide and 33% self-harmed. The “rescue process” endures long after a child is separated from their trafficker or abuser due to the traumatic mental and physical abuse a child might undergo.

Children deserve the ability to live in a world free of abuse or maltreatment. The most effective way to prevent trafficking is through education. Understanding the signs and effects of trafficking can equip you with the proper resources to identity and report a potential child trafficking victim.

It is important to dispel myths surrounding child trafficking such as the belief that only strangers can traffick children. As mentioned previously, in some cases, relatives are involved in trafficking or abuse.

Another common myth is that child sex trafficking is worse or more pervasive than child labor trafficking. Over 3.2 million children worldwide are victims of labor trafficking. They are forced to work under the threat of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse in a variety of industries including the agricultural, mining, and garment industries (8). Many items we consume on a daily basis including coffee, fruit, or clothing could be traced to child labor trafficking. In addition to understanding the warning signs of trafficking, making wise consumer choices and researching a company’s supply chain can help to reduce the demand for child labor. You are a piece of the puzzle to end child trafficking.


(1) This includes both labor and sex trafficking. International Labour Organization, Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, 2017, https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_575479.pdf

(2) U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children and Families, Child Maltreatment, 2019, p.16

(3) Bouché, Vanessa, An Empirical Analysis of the Intersection of Organized Crime and Human Trafficking In the United States, July 2017, https://www.ojp.gov/pdf iles1/nij/grants/250955.pdf

(4) U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children and Families, Child Maltreatment, 2019

(5) International Organization of Migration, Counter-Trafficking Data Brief,https://www.iom.int/sites/default/files/our_work/DMM/MAD/Counter-traf icking%20Data%20Brief%2008121 7.pdf

(6) U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children and Families, Child Maltreatment, 2019

(7) De Bellis, Michael D, and Abigail Zisk. “The Biological Effects of Childhood Trauma.” Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Apr. 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/

(8) International Organization of Migration, Counter-Trafficking Data Brief,https://www.iom.int/sites/default/files/our_work/DMM/MAD/Counter-traf icking%20Data%20Brief%2008121 7.pdf, p.32

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