In recent years, the plight of human trafficking victims has received a great deal of attention among legislators, social service providers and the popular press. This attention is overdue, as for years, youth forced to engage in prostitution were at best ignored, but more often were treated with contempt, labeled as prostitutes and charged with crimes. Youth forced into labor servitude were routinely overlooked altogether.
As society begins to learn more about the growing problem of domestic trafficking, some questions remain, including even the most basic question: How many people are currently being victimized by trafficking right here in the U.S.? Answering this question is not an easy task, because victims are often reluctant to come forward and seek help. This reluctance is partly because perpetrators frequently convince their victims that if they attempt to seek help, no one will believe them; instead they will be thought of as criminals or prostitutes. Victims’ previous experience with law enforcement often only reinforces that belief. Additionally, a lack of any central system to identify and count victims of trafficking leaves policy makers with inaccurate data on the number of domestic trafficking victims, making it difficult to budget and promote appropriate public policy. In order to prevent trafficking and assist survivors, we must first learn to identify the victims.
At Covenant House New York (CHNY), we have seen firsthand the difficulty in identifying victims. As New York City’s largest provider of services for homeless youth ages 16-21, we provide comprehensive care including shelter, food, clothing, counseling, medical and legal assistance, case management, job training and education services to over 3,000 youth each year. And since we opened our doors in 1972, we have always known that traffickers and other exploiters seek out vulnerable youth to recruit and victimize. Yet young people do not arrive at the doors of our shelter stating “Help, I have been trafficked.” Instead they say, “Help, I need food and a place to sleep.”
Although we were certain that there were large numbers of trafficking survivors among our clients, we were having difficulty identifying them due to the reluctance of young people to disclose their experience. For this reason, we sought out the assistance of the Applied Developmental Psychology Department at Fordham University to help us develop and scientifically validate a screening tool to better identify trafficking victims among our youth. In addition to developing the tool, we hoped to learn more about the type and amount of trafficking our youth have experienced to better inform both our practice and our advocacy. Using the tool we developed, we surveyed a random sample of 174 youth between 18 and 23 years old.