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New Brief Identifies and Supports LGBTQ Youth who have Experienced Sexual Exploitation

  ·   By Justine Kim

Healthy relationships are important for the positive development of children and youth, and are especially important for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) youth of color in child welfare. LGBTQ youth are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system and within that demographic, youth of color are particularly disproportionately represented. According to the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being – II, 61.8 percent of LGB children in child welfare are youth of color. Not only do LGBTQ youth of color experience disproportionate representation in the child welfare system, when systems fail to meet their needs they are also at a “heightened risk of exploitation due to experiences including rejection and desperate need of shelter, food and other necessities”.

The importance of healthy relationships for youth was apparent in CSSP-led focus groups, where youth spoke of experiences with healthy and unhealthy relationships, including sexual exploitation, and the response (or lack thereof) by child welfare systems. One barrier youth identified was the inaccessible language used by systems to identify and document these experiences, including the use of terms like sex trafficking or commercial sexual activity in assessments and intake forms. In order for child welfare systems to be able to identify and serve youth who have experienced sexual exploitation, it is important to use language that resonates with and matches the lived experiences of youth and to work with young people to identify healthy relationship patterns.

Often, young people involved in sexual exploitation are unaware of the exploitative nature of their relationships. For example, a young person might perceive the exchange or expectation of sex in return for basic needs such as food or shelter as a normal part of an intimate relationship. Youth also cite fear of punishment and resulting stigma as to why they are hesitant to identify their experiences as sexual exploitation to adults and systems professionals. In addition, implicit bias on behalf of workers and perceptions of promiscuity or perceptions that youth of color are older and less innocent than their white peers may affect how assessment tools are applied for LGBTQ youth of color. Consequently, when the language systems use around sex trafficking and exploitation at intake and in assessments does not match the experiences of LGBTQ youth of color in the child welfare system, both systems and young people themselves may be prevented from accurately identifying those who have experienced sexual exploitation. This lapse between language and lived experience in turn also prevents the system from connecting these youth with appropriate supports and services.

In 2014, President Obama signed the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (H.R. 4980) into law which requires child welfare agencies to identify, report and support youth who are either at risk or have been victims of sex trafficking. Our focus groups and interviews concluded that in order to fully meet this requirement, the language utilized by the child welfare system must enable and support youth and fully engage LGBTQ youth of color.

Our recent brief, Bridging the Language Gap in Child Welfare: Identifying and Supporting LGBTQ Youth who have Experienced Sexual Exploitation, recommends ways for systems to support the identification of LGBTQ youth of color who have experienced sexual exploitation. States should:

  • Ensure youth engagement in the design and implementation of improved screening tools to increase capacity for child welfare systems to identify youth involved with sexual exploitation and trafficking;
  • Utilize multidisciplinary teams to ensure consistent language and definitions across systems;
  • Eliminate barriers to accessing child welfare services by updating and clarifying key definitions and terminology; and
  • Raise the minimum age from 18 to 21 years old for instances of sex trafficking that must demonstrate force, fraud or coercion.

These four recommendations aim to remove barriers to identifying LGBTQ youth who have experienced sexual exploitation. Identifying youth is the first step to connecting them with the appropriate and necessary supports and services. If child welfare systems are not able to identify youth, then they will not be able to provide supports and services that address unhealthy relationships and strengthen healthy relationships for LGBTQ youth of color.

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Justine Kim is a communications intern at CSSP. She is currently an undergraduate at Northwestern University, majoring in social policy and Asian American studies. 

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