A new study from researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and Baylor College of Medicine says a screening tool specifically designed to identify human trafficking could be more effective than current practices in identifying sexually exploited youths.

By Daniel Herborn


Posted on February 21, 2019

The study’s participants were recruited from a shelter for homeless youth in Houston, Texas. The results were recently published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

The screening tool the authors advocate for involves asking youth specific questions about trade for sex.

Specialised screening tool could help authorities recognise human trafficking victims

Of the participants in the study, 22% said they had traded sexual favours for necessities such as food, clothing, money or housing. 70% of those who had traded sex had been minors when they first made such trades.

This screening tool was found to be more likely to identify youth being sexually exploited commercially than the current psychosocial assessment, the authors concluded.

“The new assessment tool was much more effective,” one of the study’s co-authors, Dianne M. Santa Maria, said.

“It is important for providers working with high-risk groups to add these questions specific to trafficking.

“We found that the entry into trafficking also happens through family, friends, and acquaintances. This was extremely eye-opening…These are kids who have fallen through every crack society has. When these youth are in desperate need of food and shelter, the vulnerability for trafficking is tremendous.”

Santa Maria also said that identifying those at risk of human trafficking and those that had been subject to the practice allowed them to be put in touch with services they wouldn’t otherwise access. This is especially important as the report identified that victims of human trafficking are often extremely distrustful of authority and institutions such as the police and mental health bodies.

Co-author Claire Bocchini, an Assistant Professor in Pediatrics, said the new work “emphasizes the need for health care providers to recognise how difficult it can be for youth who have been trafficked to open up to providers”.

“Providers need to be trained on the importance of using a trafficking-specific screening tool to maximise the opportunity to identify trafficking survivors,” she said.

Human trafficking “destroys precious lives”

Per the most recently available statistics from the International Labour Organization, around 40 million people globally are victims of human trafficking and the industry is worth a staggering US$150 billion.

A quarter of human trafficking victims are children and women and girls are disproportionately impacted, with 71% of victims being women or girls.

After California, Texas is the US state with the highest incidence of human trafficking.

Donald Trump has previously given a presidential proclamation that human trafficking often remains hidden because of language barriers and fear of retribution from traffickers and law enforcement. “Human trafficking destroys precious lives and threatens our Nation’s security, public health, and the rule of law,” he said.

Header image credit: Royal Air Force Mildenhall