Research Watch

Sex trafficking among youth involved in child welfare within the United States

Year of Publication
Date Reviewed
Reviewed By
Megan Simpson

O’Brien, J. E., White, K., & Rizo, C. F. (2017). Domestic minor sex trafficking among child welfare–involved youth: An exploratory study of correlates. Child Maltreatment, 22(3), 265-274.


This study explored the relationships between demographics factors, domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) status and psychosocial variables among children and youth in the child welfare system in the US. DMST was defined using a legal framework including the recruitment, harbouring, transportation, provision or obtaining minors for the purposes of a commercial sex act or defined as the exchanging sex acts to meet one’s basic needs.  Measuring the incidence and prevalence of DMST is challenging as there are few valid and reliable tools rendering DMST a largely hidden epidemic in American society. Based on American arrest records, DMST has occurred in 50 states in the United States of America while one third of human trafficking cases involve minors. The average age at which minors are lured in DMST is between the ages of 11 and 14 years old.

This study used Wave I and Wave II of the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW II) in order to explore correlations regarding DMST among youth in child welfare populations. Among a sample of 814 youths between the ages of ten to seventeen years old, subjects were included if they answered `yes’ to the following question: “In the past 6 months, have you been paid for having sexual relations with someone?” The total number of youths who answered yes to this question was 38 (4.7%).

The youth who experienced DMST were compared for group differences against those who had not. No gender differences were found between DMST and non-DMST groups with slightly more females than males in both groups. The DMST sample was comprised of 54% females and 46% males, while the non DMST sample was comprised of 60% females and 40% males. Similarly, there was no group differences for race observed in this study. Results regarding externalizing behavioural problems demonstrated that older children in the DMST population were 38% more likely to test in the clinical range for substance abuse problem. Youth who experienced DMST were more likely to have run away behaviours and scored ten points higher on the Child Behavior Checklist.

Services should address permanency and attachment issues among child welfare involved youth, and a holistic residential care environment that is different from their previous environment where trauma occurred should be developed to address youths’ full spectrum of needs.

Methodological Notes

A major limitation of this study is the narrow question which was asked of youth to assess who was included in DMST category. A more inclusive question to ask the sample might include “have you ever engaged in sexual activity for monetary or material gain, or as favour to another person?”