Child trafficking: How to recognize the signs

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Child trafficking—a modern-day form of slavery that continues to destroy many lives—often is hidden, even from the clinicians who see its victims. Traffickers typically exploit children for labor or commercial sexual work. The signs and symptoms that suggest a child is being trafficked may be less clear than those of the psychiatric illnesses we usually diagnose and treat. In this article, I summarize characteristics that could be helpful to note when you suspect a child is being trafficked, and offer some resources for helping victims.

How to identify possible victims

Children can be trafficked anywhere. The concept of a child being picked up off a street corner is outdated. Trafficking occurs in cities, suburbs, and rural areas. It happens in hotel rooms, at truck stops, on quiet residential streets, and in expensive homes. The internet has made it easier for traffickers to find victims.

Traffickers typically target youth who are emotionally and physically vulnerable. They often seek out teenagers who are undergoing financial hardships, experiencing family conflict, or have survived natural disasters. Many victims are runaways. In 2016, 1 in 6 child runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely victims of trafficking.1 Of those children, 86% were receiving social services support or living in foster homes.

Traffickers are adept at emotional manipulation, which may explain why a child or adolescent might minimize the abuse during a clinical visit. Traffickers shroud the realities of trafficking with notions of love and inclusion. They use several physical and mental schemes to keep children and adolescents in their grip, such as withholding food, sleep, or medical care. Therefore, we should check for signs and symptoms of chronic medical conditions that have gone untreated, malnutrition, or bruises in various stages of healing.

Connecting risk factors for trafficking to dramatic changes in a young patient’s behavior is challenging. These youth often have dropped out of school, lack consistent family support, and spend their nights in search of a warm place to sleep. Their lives are upended. A child who once was more social may be forced into isolation and make excuses for why she no longer spends time with her friends.

In a study of 106 survivors of domestic sex trafficking, approximately 89% of respondents reported depression during depression. Many respondents reported experiencing anxiety (76.4%), nightmares (73.6%), flashbacks (68%), low self-esteem (81.1%), or feelings of shame or guilt (82.1%).2 Almost 88% of respondents said that they saw a doctor or other clinician while being trafficked, but their clinicians were unable to recognize the signs of trafficking. Part of the challenge is that many children and adolescents are not comfortable discussing their situations with clinicians because they may struggle with shame and guilt. Their traffickers also might have convinced them that they are criminals, not victims. These patients also may have an overwhelming fear of their trafficker, being reported to child welfare authorities, being arrested, being deported, or having their traffickers retaliate against their families. Gaining the trust of a patient who is being trafficked is critical, but not easy, because children may be skeptical of a clinician’s promise of confidentiality.

Some signs of trafficking overlap with the psychiatric presentations with which we are more familiar. These patients may abuse drugs or alcohol as means of escape or because their traffickers force them to use substances.2 They may show symptoms of depression or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and may be disoriented. Other indicators may be more telling, such as if a child or adolescent describes:

  • having no control of their schedules or forms of identification
  • having to work excessively long hours, often to pay off an overwhelming debt
  • having high security measures installed in their place of residence (such as cameras or barred windows).

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