The intersection of commercial sexual exploitation and the juvenile legal system

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention month.

If you care about juvenile legal reform, you should care about youth trafficking prevention. This work resonates with the goal of Zero Youth Detention and aligns with multiple objectives in the Road Map to Zero Youth Detention.

In King County, approximately 230 children were victims of sex trafficking in 2018 (defined as having ever traded a sex act for money, drugs, shelter, or other goods). While exact numbers don’t exist, studies indicate that most young people in King County who have been victims of sex trafficking have also been involved in the juvenile legal system.

How the legal system is responding

Recognizing this intersection, in April 2013, King County Juvenile Court formed the Commercially Sexually Exploited Children (CSEC) Taskforce. The group leads policy and programming to better support commercially sexually exploited children and works to prevent exploitation by leading trainings and forming collaborations with providers and first responders.

The CSEC Program’s work is part of a national movement among advocates and the legal system to focus on providing services for commercially sexually exploited children, addressing the system weaknesses that can lead to the exploitation of vulnerable youth, and targeting the root cause – sex buyers.

Rather than holding young people criminally liable for prostitution, it is now the practice of the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to connect youth picked up for “prostitution” with supportive services. “There’s no such thing as a ‘child prostitute,” explains Kelly Mangiaracina, coordinator of the CSEC Taskforce. “These children are victims of exploitation.”

In 2008, 82 youth were charged for prostitution and referred to Juvenile Court; in 2018, no minors were charged for prostitution. King County’s Prosecuting Attorney Office reported a 28% increase in prosecutions of buyers between 2017 and 2018.

Who’s most impacted

In 2019, advocacy group StolenYouth published a study including demographics of King County youth receiving services for experiencing commercial sexual exploitation.

The study found major racial disproportionality in terms of who is victimized by commercial sexual exploitation, and who is perpetuating this harm. While only 7% of King County’s population is Black, 31% of commercially sexually exploited youth in King County identify as Black. On the other hand, nationally, 60% of buyers are white.

“We see disproportionately white adult males buying disproportionately black juvenile girls for sex,” says Benjamin Gauen, Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney who leads the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office’s work on combatting sex trafficking. “Our data highlights the gender, race and income inequality that is inherent in the illicit sex trade. If we want to be truly progressive about this issue, then we must expose the systemic gender-based violence and racial discrimination that is rooted in sex buying.”

Contrary to common belief, sex trafficking by no means only affects girls. StolenYouth’s study found that 85% identified as female. However, the study notes that boys and non-binary youth are often less likely to be referred for supportive services, meaning these numbers likely underrepresent the proportion of boys and non-binary youth who are impacted. The CSEC Program is working to change this disparity in service referrals through free trainings for community providers that give more nuance into how to identify and respond to trafficking among boys and non-binary youth.

Youth who are living homeless or who are involved with foster care are at much greater risk of commercial sexual exploitation. “As part of our work to go upstream,” explains Mangiaracina, “We’ve partnered with Department of Children Youth and Families to educate staff in the foster care system on the signs of sexual exploitation so that we can intervene earlier on.”

Findings from StolenYouth’s 2018 study of youth in King County receiving services for experiencing commercial sexual exploitation.

Complex histories

“Kids who are being trafficked are the kids who’ve fallen through all the cracks – they often struggle with substance use, mental health issues, and histories of abuse,” explains Mangiaracina. “These qualities make them much more vulnerable to sexual exploitation, and more vulnerable to activities that get them involved in the legal system.” Many of these young people are engaged in survival sex, trading sex for food, shelter, and protection. These same needs may motivate other behaviors – stealing, fighting, substance abuse – which can lead to legal system involvement. 

In part thanks to the CSEC Program’s work, the young people brought to detention in King County are screened for commercial sexual exploitation. When staff suspect a young person is being trafficked, Juvenile Detention staff enlist the Bridge Collaborative – made up of representatives from YouthCare, Friends of Youth, Nexus Youth and Families, Kent Youth and Families, and the Organization for Prostitution Survivors. A community advocate, a specialized CSEC case manager, meets with the young person and helps connect them with services based on their needs (housing, food, counseling).

“The important thing is not treating these youth as ‘criminals’ but rather victims of a circumstance that they had no choice in to begin with,” says Chelsea Olsen, an advocate with Organization of Prostitution Survivors, in discussing the approach she and other advocates use. “Meeting youth where they are at emotionally and relationship building is the answer. Holding space for youth without judgement and instead with empathy is how we build meaningful relationships.”

“We’re doing really well at identifying young people who are victims and connecting them with services. Where we need to do better is how to keep supporting these young people when they commit other crimes or victimize others,” explains Mangiaracina. “One of our taskforce’s goals for 2020 is to figure out how we can balance our understanding of the trauma the young people have experienced and the behaviors and activities that bring harm to others. What do we do when those who have been hurt, hurt others?”

Final thoughts

Mangiaracina advises that if you’re working with a young person who you’re concerned is being trafficked, the best thing you can do is to be a safe person they can come to by showing compassionate, non-judgmental care. If a young person discloses commercial sexual exploitation to you, connect the young person to services by calling the Bridge Collaborative’s 24-hour hotline: 1.855.400.2732 (1.855.400.CSEC).

Mangiaracina reminds everyone: “There’s nothing wrong with the young person – it’s not something they’ve done, it’s something that’s been done to them.”