If immediate response is needed, call 911. If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline 1-888-373-7888 to speak with a specially trained Anti-Trafficking Hotline Advocate.

By Dana Klar, JD, LCSW, Associate Teaching Professor at UMSL, Gateway Alliance against Human Trafficking Board Member

There is no single definition of child abuse and neglect, as these terms are defined by federal and state laws.  At the federal level, The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) defines child abuse and neglect as “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caregiver that results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation, or an act or failure to act that presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”  In Missouri, physical abuse is defined as any injury inflicted on a child by other than accidental means by those responsible for the child’s care, custody and control.  Neglect occurs when those responsible for care, custody and control fail to provide proper or necessary support; education as required by law; nutrition; or medical, surgical or any other care necessary for the child’s well-being.  Missouri includes sexual abuse/exploitation as a form of neglect and specifically includes victims of sex trafficking or other severe forms of trafficking. 

As both federal and Missouri state definitions mention exploitation specifically, child trafficking is clearly understood as meeting the definition of child abuse and neglect.   Missouri law is more specific, in that it defines trafficking as a form of neglect.  It would be impossible to have a trafficking situation that does not include child abuse, as all trafficking involves exploitation, imminent risk of serious harm, and lack of proper care.  There is another very important intersection of trafficking and child abuse, in that a prior history of child abuse makes a child much more vulnerable to trafficking.  The abused child may have an impaired sense of safety and therefore not recognize any early signs of danger in a potential trafficking situation.  

First and foremost, trafficking steals the childhood from the child.  This loss alone produces significant trauma.  The forced labor, marriage, military service, or sex acts further traumatize a child who is not able to, in any recognizable fashion, move through the typical childhood developmental stages.  This lack of a childhood and typical development creates further relational and developmental losses. In addition, a child constantly exposed to violence and manipulation may become numb to the inherent dangers they face.  Many children are threatened by the traffickers to hide the reality of their situation.  This forced secretive life is another type of imposed trauma, especially for those children with medical and/or mental health issues that then go unaddressed.  The underground nature of trafficking leads to circumstances in which children have limited access to simple life necessities (food, housing, sleep, safety, hygiene), let alone medical and mental health care, as these inevitably become a need as well.  

It is important to speak with a child who you suspect has been or is being trafficked in a private setting and make sure others are not able to listen or observe.  Interruptions or open doors may make the child anxious.  As with all children, it is important (if you are a mandated reporter) as you begin speaking with them, to establish the limits of confidentiality and explain the purpose of speaking with them.  Certainly, a quick referral to a well-trained professional (forensic interviewer or child-safe pediatrician, for example) is needed for in-depth discussions focused on learning the details of the child’s experience.    Most others need their approach to focus most on being a calm, supportive, caring and trustworthy adult.  Allowing the child some sense of control (“where would you like to sit?” – or “ would you prefer to take a walk while we visit?”, “we can take a break any time you would like,”) is very helpful in reassuring them of safety. That feeling can be furthered by taking opportunities to emphasize the child’s strengths (“you are brave to be here”), avoiding judgement, and normalizing their feelings.  It is preferential to mitigate any overly emotional situation (“we don’t have to discuss this right now) and accept the child as they are – without trying to persuade him/her to alter his/her views/plans/actions.

Three main points: 

  1. As mentioned earlier, trafficked youth are often those who have already been subjected to child abuse and neglect.  Early childhood traumas and adversities make children increasingly vulnerable to traffickers.  Estimates suggest 50 – 90% of trafficked children have histories with child welfare, foster care, or juvenile justice.  These settings provide important prevention and intervention opportunities.  Anything you can do to promote healthier systems and communities in general can hopefully help reduce this issue.
  2. Trafficked children and youth are often difficult to identify and even more difficult to engage in services.  Professionals in the formal systems of response have the most significant potential to help reduce these overall numbers by providing a consistent, positive, and safe first experience (as in “a” above) so that, if trafficked, the youth may have less fear of engaging with, and may trust the systems for help.
  3. Be sure to take good care of yourself.  If you work or volunteer in this area, you will be impacted by the extreme nature of this trauma.  You will serve the children and youth best if you are healthy (mentally, emotionally and physically).  They desperately need role models who are consistent, stable, healthy, and can provide support.  Despite the area’s unique and emerging challenges, please don’t be afraid to serve those children in need. I implore you to understand the immense power that a kind word or reliable presence can have on a child. 

Lastly, we want to be sure everyone is aware of a tremendous resource recently published by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (in January 2020, for Human Trafficking Awareness Month).   This list of External Resources can assist us all in our journey to learn more about the issue of child trafficking and the services available.  This resource can be found at https://www.nctsn.org/resources/national-slavery-and-human-trafficking-awareness-month-external-resources.


Children’s Bureau; https://www.childwelfare.gov; The National Child Traumatic Stress Network Policy Brief:  Understanding & Addressing Trauma and Child Sex Trafficking (NCTSN.org); The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children’s Practice Guideline:  The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, Caldera, D, et al, 2013; and HumanTraffickingSearch.org/impact