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Recognizing and Responding to Human Trafficking


Human trafficking is a crime. It can happen to adults and young people in any community. But most of us don't see it and don't think it happens in our community. So, it's critical to become aware and learn how to respond.

Human trafficking involves the exploitation of a person for labor, services, or commercial sex. Traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to target victims. They profit at the expense of others.  It’s up to all of us to know the warning signs to help keep our young people safe.

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    Types of human trafficking

    There are different kinds of human trafficking. But the United States recognizes two primary forms, labor and sex trafficking.

    1. Labor trafficking - forcing someone to provide labor or services. It can happen in any setting, like factories, restaurants, and retail stores.
    2. Sex trafficking - forcing someone into a commercial sex act. It can happen in homes, hotels, and on the internet.

    How human trafficking impacts young people

    Human trafficking is a public health issue that exists in every nation around the globe. Survivors often experience severe physical and mental health issues.

    You may think human trafficking only happens on TV or in the movies. But it can happen in any community, whether rural or urban.

    And young people may be especially vulnerable for many reasons, including:

    • Disconnection from family or friends
    • Unstable living situation
    • Low self-esteem, need for love and acceptance
    • Need for money and basic needs
    • History of trauma or abuse
    • Lack of experience with healthy relationships

    Being trafficked often takes away a person's sense of safety, ownership of their body, and self-esteem. It may also cause or worsen anxiety, depression, and a general lack of trust.

    Trafficking isn’t always a violent crime. But it uses psychological ways to manipulate, threaten, or even break someone’s spirit.

    Remember, human trafficking can happen anywhere. But it is often hard to spot. And most people don't know what to look for. So, we all need to learn to recognize the warning signs.

    Victims are often recruited right out in the open. Traffickers target schools, foster homes, homeless shelters, bus stations, playgrounds, and malls.

    Young people may even be trafficked in their own homes. They can be trafficked by romantic partners, neighbors, or family members. It’s not always a stranger.

    What to look for and what you can do

    There are many red flags of trafficking if you know what to look for. Some warning signs that young people are being trafficked include:

    • Having goods and services they can’t afford
    • Carrying multiple phones
    • Excessive amounts of cash
    • Showing signs of abuse or trauma, substance use
    • Not knowing where they are and why

    If you suspect you see someone being trafficked, remember these steps:

    • Don’t engage the situation
    • Call the police and give as many details as possible
    • Take a picture, but only if you can safely!
    • Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 for resources

    If you are supporting a survivor, start by acknowledging the traumatic impact of what has happened to them. Support their resiliency. And take care to focus on them as a person rather than a victim.

    Also, teaching young people about social media and internet safety will go a long way since online recruitment has increased so much the last few years.

    If you’d like to learn more about human trafficking and how you can support young people that have experienced it, YIPA has a training called Recognizing Trafficking is Our Ethical Imperative. And if you’d like to learn more about labor trafficking in particular, check out YIPA’s interview-style training called Recognizing Labor Trafficking.

    About the author

    Jade Schleif is the training coordinator of the Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA), a non-profit association of youth-serving organizations. We're your source for exceptional, affordable, personal and professional online learning via The Professional Youth Worker.  Join us!

    To ask Jade a question or share your feedback about this blog, email

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