Physicians and other healthcare providers often fail to identify children who are victims of sex trafficking because of inadequate awareness and training, according to a new study.
Researchers sent a survey to about 500 healthcare providers considered most likely to encounter child sex trafficking victims-including physicians, nurses, physician assistants, social workers, and patient and family advocates-at hospitals and medical clinics in urban, suburban, and rural areas of southeast Wisconsin. Of the recipients, 168 responded, mostly doctors and social workers.
The survey asked questions about 2 clinical vignettes depicting potential pediatric sex trafficking victims. Fewer than half (48%) of the respondents recognized the child in the first vignette as a trafficking victim; in the second vignette, only 42% correctly distinguished a sex trafficking victim from a victim of child abuse. A significant minority (10%) described a victim as a prostitute, reflecting the view that children in the sex trade bear responsibility for their exploitation.
Federal law defines sex trafficking for victims aged younger than 18 years as engaging in any type of sexual act in exchange for something of value, such as money, drugs, food, or shelter. Proof of coercion isn’t necessary because minors can’t legally consent to sexual activity.
Sixty-three percent of survey respondents said they’d never received training in recognizing sex trafficking victims. Lack of training and awareness of sex trafficking were the most-often reported barriers to identifying victims (34% and 22% of respondents, respectively). Another frequently cited barrier was lack of a well-defined protocol for connecting patients with the services they need, which could affect a provider’s willingness to screen potential victims, the researchers point out.
Respondents who had received training expressed greater confidence in their ability to recognize victims. They were more likely to report sexual trafficking as a major local problem and to have encountered a victim in their practice.
Characteristics that many sex trafficking victims tend to share, according to an article in Contemporary Pediatrics, include coming from foster care or broken homes or being runaways; avoiding eye contact; inappropriate dress for the weather or season; signs of physical abuse, especially dental or head injuries, or repeated sexually transmitted diseases; and chronic abdominal pain in girls.
As many as 100,000 to 300,000 youth are estimated to be in danger of sex trafficking each year in the United States, but identifying victims is difficult, and no comprehensive, centralized database is available to help assess the extent of the problem.