It can be challenging for health care providers to identify young victims of sexual trafficking due to its hidden nature, poor understanding by law enforcement and other service providers, and psychological factors experienced by victims. But a new study co-authored by two Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health students outlines a simple screening protocol that could help clinicians identify those in need.
In an article in the Journal of Applied Research on Children (Vol. 6, Issue 1), Kimberly Chang, MPH ’15, Joon-Suk Terrence Park, SM ’15, and co-authors describe how they found traits common to victims of sexual exploitation among a group of 621 girls receiving sexual or reproductive services at a clinic in Oakland, Calif., where they worked. Those with a history of sexually transmitted infections and who had multiple sexual partners were most likely to be victims, they found.
Based on those findings, the authors developed a screening tool with information on how to identify sexually exploited children and tips for prompting conversations about the topic. “The research revealed the kinds of clinical indicators which could point to sexual exploitation—clinical indicators which are routinely asked about in a standard sexual history of a patient,” said Park.
It’s estimated that as many as 300,000 U.S. children and adolescents are at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation. The problem is particularly rampant in urban areas and among children who have already experienced trauma in their lives—like those in the study population in Oakland, which included many low-income Asian and Pacific Islander youth dealing with issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, addiction, and domestic violence. When young people dealing with such issues become sexually exploited, they can experience further trauma, such as violence, substance abuse, mental illness, sexually transmitted diseases, and unintended pregnancy.
“Sex trafficking of minors is a health and public health issue with severe acute and long-term health consequences,” said Chang, a Mongan Commonwealth Fund Fellow in Minority Health Policy, who as a physician has cared for exploited children and co-founded HEAL Trafficking, a group of health professionals and advocates who aim to end human trafficking. “I hope this research will increase the ability and willingness of community health centers and other health care providers to care for these exploited youth. Human trafficking is modern-day slavery.”
Read a fact sheet from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children