Youth who are arrested for sex trafficking have significantly more childhood adversity than kids who are arrested for other crimes, according to recent research.
Four Florida researchers analyzed the records of more than 64,000 juveniles to find that each of the 10 types of childhood adversities measured in the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) was more prevalent among youth charged with trafficking violations when compared with the other juvenile offenders, such as burglary, truancy, under age drinking, and violent crimes.
They also found that 60 percent of the 102 sexually trafficked youth in their study reported an incidence of sexual abuse, whereas only 10 percent of non-trafficked youth reported having experienced sexual abuse. There was also a statistically significant difference in the proportion of youth reporting each ACE for the trafficked versus the non-trafficked group. The most significant differences in ACE scores, however, between the trafficked youth versus the non-trafficked youth were for sexual abuse, physical abuse, and physical neglect.
Figure 1: Prevalence of adverse childhood experiences among sexually trafficked and non-sexually trafficked offending juveniles
Figure 2: Prevalence of ACE scores among sexually trafficked and non-sexually trafficked offending juveniles
The study – “Youth Arrested for Trading Sex Have the Highest Rates of Childhood Adversity: A Statewide Study of Juvenile Offenders” – was published in Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, September 3, 2015.
“The biggest message we can take away is that most of the sexually trafficked offenders have histories of victimization,” says Dr. Melissa Bright, an assistant scientist with the University of Florida’s Institute for Child Health Policy.
The researchers compared ACEs data reported by 102 youth who were arrested for trading sex with 64,227 offending youth arrested for various other crimes from 2007 to 2012. The ACEs data was extracted from Florida’s Positive Achievement Change Tool (PACT), a comprehensive assessment tool administered to all youth offenders.
All youth offenders in Florida are given one or two versions of the PACT, which continues to be administered. A “pre-screen,” which is a 46-item, multiple choice assessment, is given to low-risk offenders, who are usually recommended for diversion or other community-based intervention programs and isolated from higher-risk youth who might influence them. A PACT Full Assessment, as it’s called, is given to high-risk youth, those most likely to be kept in protective custody. Only the full screen includes the questions necessary to obtain an ACE score.
Nathan Epps, the instigator of this study, works with the Florida Department of Justice and is familiar with the CDC-ACEs questionnaire. He noted that many of the questions in PACT are similar to those in the ACEs questionnaire, and since he had access to the vast PACT database, he brought into the study Dr. Nancy Hardt, recently retired medical professor at the University of Florida Medical College and a civic leader. During her tenure at the medical school, she was instrumental in developing the Family Data Center, which integrates data from all sources – criminal offense, social services, juvenile justice, education, and health – to help communities make better decisions regarding prevention and intervention for children and families.
This study was an extension of an earlier groundbreaking report showing a significant correlation between juvenile offenders and higher ACEs scores.
In turn, Dr. Hardt brought in Rachel Naramore, a medical student at the University of Florida College of Medicine, whose focus is on youth involved in sex trafficking. And Naramore pulled in Bright, a Ph.D. in developmental psychology with a focus on maltreatment and family systems.
Bright cited the timeliness of the study because there has been a national shift in the way the courts and social services are addressing teens’ involvement in the sex trade industry. Sex trafficking is no longer seen as a criminal act on the part of the child but rather as child abuse for profit. The important shift, she says is that youth are not committing crimes, but are being repeatedly victimized.
The report specifically recommends that the juvenile justice system assess the ACE history of each child who enters the system to identify youth at highest risk for re-offending. According to the authors:
First, maltreated youth—particularly those with histories of sexual abuse—need consistent, protective environments with adults who can monitor their behavior and be alert to signs of sex trafficking and re-victimization. Second, juvenile justice systems should utilize screening tools similar to Florida’s PACT to identify offending youth with histories of maltreatment. Services for both maltreated and offending youth should be tailored to assist them in first meeting their most basic needs—safety and security—and then identifying appropriate relationships with adults.
In the long run, they say, reducing exposure to ACEs will reduce youth involvement in crime and criminal justice system costs.