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National CASA: A Prevention Army for Child Sex Trafficking 

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. As the month comes to a close, National CASA is focusing on how we can keep this pervasive and serious issue a priority for our nationwide network of program staff and volunteers all year long.

Sex trafficking is modern-day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of commercial sex act. A commercial sex act can be a sex act traded for anything of value, like money, food, or shelter. Under U.S. federal law, any minor under the age of 18 years induced into commercial sex is a victim of sex trafficking—regardless of whether or not the trafficker used force, fraud, or coercion. There is no such thing as a child prostitute, only child victims. While some traffickers are strangers who offer promises of a safe place to stay, a job, or a support system, traffickers are also family members, family friends, boyfriends, and other trusted figures.

National CASA is on high-alert because the children and youth we serve are targeted by traffickers at higher rates than the general population of children and teens. Traffickers target the most vulnerable among us—those who have experienced mental, physical, and especially, sexual abuse, runaways, and those who lack an emotional support network.

According to the U.S. Administration of Children, Youth, and Families, somewhere between 50 and 90 percent of child trafficking victims have been involved in the child welfare system at some point in their lives. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found that 86 percent of the runaways reported as missing in 2016 who were identified as likely child sex trafficking victims were missing from a foster care or group home placement. Group homes are often used as recruitment hotspots for traffickers. The internet is another vehicle for recruitment and provides an online marketplace for commercial sex with minors.

This heartbreaking quote from a survivor sums up the foster care-trafficking connection:


“Being in foster care was the perfect training for commercial sexual exploitation. I was used to being moved without warning, without any say, not knowing where I was going or whether I was allowed to pack my clothes. After years in foster care, I didn’t think anyone would want to take care of me unless they were paid. So, when my pimp expected me to make money to support ‘the family’, it made sense to me.”

And she’s right. When children feel monetized, invisible, and devalued, they are especially susceptible. But a one-on-one relationship with a caring, consistent, and highly trained adult can make a difference in cases like this. A CASA or GAL volunteer checks in. They get to know the child. They spend time together. They develop trust. They notice when something is off or when a child is withdrawn. They notice when the child has a bruise. While other adults in the child’s life come and go, our volunteers remain.

National CASA can leverage the power of our nationwide network of 87,000 volunteers to help prevent trafficking, identify red flags, and support victims. By virtue of our operating model, we encounter child victims of abuse or neglect after they have been victimized, but trafficking is an area where we can have a serious impact on prevention. We are a prevention army.

That’s why it’s critical for our programs to educate staff members and volunteers on risk factors, red flags, ways to ensure safety, and strategies to educate the children and youth we serve about trafficking so they can advocate for themselves.

We’re also committed to making sure that victims of trafficking are treated as victims and not criminals. We advocate for victims to come before family courts so they can receive needed services to help them heal.

Our programs are already doing incredible work in this area. They are partnering with judges, child welfare agencies, law enforcement, and other nonprofits, as well as serving on coalitions, task forces and commissions with these key stakeholders. They are hosting trainings for volunteer advocates with state and local experts. State and local programs are equipping volunteers with knowledge and resources so they can advocate in court for the best interests of victims, including recommending needed services and new placements when a child’s safety is in jeopardy.

National CASA is partnering with My Life My Choice and Harvard School of Medicine's Wendy Macias-Konstantopoulos to offer three workshops on preventing commercial sexual exploitation of children at our upcoming conference in Boston. If you are interested in this issue and want to learn more about how to prevent sex trafficking, join us in March.

We will continue to engage on this issue throughout 2018 so we can be a powerful force for prevention, and when that’s not possible, our volunteers will continue to be supportive adults who can help victims heal and thrive.
The US Department of Justice has supported CASA advocacy since 1985 through its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
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