Sex Trafficking among Youth with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: Ensuring Inclusive Prevention Practices

by Melissa Jenkins and Hannabeth Franchino-Olsen


What is IDD?

Intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) represents an umbrella term for neurodevelopmental disorders that begin in early childhood and affect learning, behavior, and social and physical development (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2020a). About 1 in 6 children in the United States have at least one IDD, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder, and learning disabilities that impact academic performance. Signs of these disabilities first appear before age 22 and include challenges with intellectual functioning (i.e., learning, reasoning, and problem solving) and adaptive behavior (i.e., everyday conceptual, social, and practical skills; American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, n.d.).

What Evidence Is There That Youth with IDD Experience Sex Trafficking?

Credible estimates for how many minors in the United States experience trafficking do not currently exist, and, to date, no studies have sought to estimate the number of youth with IDD who experience trafficking every year in the United States (Franchino-Olsen et al., 2020). However, some studies examining sex trafficking victimization have investigated how youth with certain IDDs compare to their peers without disabilities among identified or self-reported persons who have experienced trafficking. In a small study, Reid (2016) examined the case files at a social services agency in Florida and found that 15 out of 54 minor victims of sex trafficking were assessed as having an intellectual disability. In these cases, girls with IDD were more likely to have the following risk factors compared to girls without IDD: running away, risky internet behavior, and difficulty discerning between a potential romantic partner and a trafficker. In a larger study sample of 344 youth, Chisolm-Straker and colleagues (2018) found that homeless youth who received special education services were at an increased risk of experiencing sex trafficking. Moreover, additional research found youth with cognitive disabilities to be 1.3 to 4.9 times more likely than their peers without cognitive disabilities to experience sex trafficking (de Vries et al., 2020; Franchino-Olsen et al., 2020). For youth with disabilities and other marginalized identities, such as identifying as a sexual minority, the risk of experiencing any kind of sexual violence increases (Jaffray, 2020).

What Do We Know About Inclusive Sex Trafficking Prevention?

The risk of sex trafficking among youth with IDD and/or other disabilities is an emerging research area, alongside recent efforts to prevent and increase awareness of minor sex trafficking via programming and educational curricula. It is critical to ensure that efforts (campaigns, curricula, etc.) aimed at preventing sex trafficking via community and school programs are inclusive of and accessible to youth with IDD. Inclusion refers to encouraging people with disabilities to participate in everyday social, educational, and health activities alongside their peers without disabilities (CDC, 2020). Accessible programming means providing accommodations to ensure a compatible learning environment for students with disabilities (Hsiao et al., 2019). Sex trafficking prevention for people with disabilities can be informed by recent research about the inclusivity of community-level intimate partner and family violence prevention and intervention programs (Robinson et al., 2021; Stern et al, 2020). Additionally, sex trafficking prevention education based in schools must address the needs of youth with IDD, especially given the longstanding history of inclusion of students with IDD in public schools (U.S. Department of Education, 2020).

In the report Human Trafficking in America’s Schools, the U.S. Department of Education recommended that schools develop comprehensive prevention programs that target students, staff, and parents to increase awareness of the existence and dynamics of minor sex trafficking (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). In response, several states passed legislation to require the incorporation of sex trafficking prevention into secondary school health curriculum (New Jersey General Assembly, 2019; North Carolina General Assembly, 2015). Unfortunately, little is known about how such legislation applies to children in restricted special education settings and whether school polices affect their access to the general health curriculum. It is also unclear whether school-based prevention programs that have been developed are inclusive of the needs of youth with IDD in terms of technology, instruction, engagement, and messaging. As such, more policies, programming, and research is required to ensure students with IDD are able to access developmentally appropriate curricula for sex trafficking prevention in secondary schools.

What Are Some Potential Solutions to Promote Inclusive Sex Trafficking Prevention?

  • Develop a Comprehensive Systems Approach. Rather than adapt a deficit-oriented approach in which a youth’s IDD diagnosis is the reason for their risk, service professionals should emphasize the failure of systems to properly connect youth with IDD to much-needed resources. For instance, youth with IDD make up a significant proportion of the juvenile justice and child welfare systems (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2018; Goldkind, 2014). Similarly, youth involved in these systems have a higher risk of experiencing sex trafficking (Anderson, et al., 2017; Cimino et al., 2017). With these overlaps, agencies should review intake and assessment processes to determine how the needs of youth with IDD are acknowledged and incorporated into sex trafficking prevention or intervention services.
  • Engage Key Partners in Prevention. Although the sex trafficking prevention literature is limited, recommended practices underscore that meaningful partner engagement is critical to the implementation of such programming. In Rothman and colleagues’ pilot study of a dating violence prevention program for youth with autism, the authors organized an advisory board consisting of self-advocates with autism, service providers, and a content expert, and incorporated their feedback into the curriculum (Rothman et al., 2020). Additionally, when delivering sex trafficking prevention education in schools, parents/caregivers are essential partners to ensure that youth with IDD have the support to reinforce knowledge and skill acquisition at home.

Though many gaps still remain at the intersection of sex trafficking prevention and meeting the needs of youth with IDD, focusing our efforts on creating inclusive and accessible policies and programs is essential to adequately protect and reach vulnerable minors. The significant physical and mental health consequences of sex trafficking requires a coordinated service response, particularly for youth with IDD who may have limited access to resources geared toward reducing the risk of experiencing or re-experiencing sex trafficking.

Resources on IDD

Center for Victim Research – Human Trafficking Victims with Disabilities or Mental Illness (

CDC – Sexual Violence and Intimate Partner Violence among People with Disabilities (

Elevatus Training (

Resources on Sex Trafficking Awareness and Prevention

Polaris Project (

HEAL Trafficking (

NCCASA – Human Trafficking Prevention Curriculum Matrix (

Key Takeaways

  • Due to economic, educational, health, and social disparities, youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs) may be more vulnerable to experiencing sex trafficking compared to their peers without such disabilities
  • Schools implementing sex trafficking prevention must consider issues of inclusivity and accessibility in their programming
  • Responsive systems (e.g., consistent screening and assessment) and partner engagement (e.g., involvement of self-advocates with IDD) are critical to inclusive sex trafficking prevention


American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD). N.d. Definition of intellectual disability.

Anderson, V. R., England, K., & Davidson, W. S. (2017). Juvenile court practitioners’ construction of and response to sex trafficking of justice system involved girls. Victims & Offenders12(5), 663-681.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020a). Facts about developmental disabilities.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020b). Disability inclusion.

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2018). Addressing the needs of young children in child welfare: Part C—Early intervention services. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Chisolm-Straker, M., Sze, J., Einbond, J., White, J., & Stoklosa, H. (2018). A supportive adult may be the difference in homeless youth not being trafficked. Children and Youth Services Review91, 115-120.

Cimino, A. N., Madden, E. E., Hohn, K., Cronley, C. M., Davis, J. B., Magruder, K., & Kennedy, M. A. (2017). Childhood maltreatment and child protective services involvement among the commercially sexually exploited: A comparison of women who enter as juveniles or as adults. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse26(3), 352-371.

De Vries, I., Kafafian, M., Goggin, K., Bouchard, E., Goldfarb, S., & Farrell, A. (2020). Enhancing the identification of commercial sexual exploitation among a population of high-risk youths using predictive regularization models. Child maltreatment25(3), 318-327.

Franchino-Olsen, H., Silverstein, H.A., Kahn, N.F., & Martin, S.L. (2020). Minor sex trafficking of girls with disabilities. International Journal of Human Rights in Healthcare, 13(2), 97-108.

Franchino-Olsen, H., Chesworth, B. R., Boyle, C., Rizo, C. F., Martin, S. L., Jordan, B., … Stevens, L. (2020). The prevalence of sex trafficking of children and adolescents in the United States: A scoping review. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse.

Goldkind, L. (2014). Protective webs: exploring a role for school social workers on behalf of delinquent youths. Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work, 11(4), 337-349.

Hsiao, F., Burgstahler, S., Johnson, T., Nuss, D., & Doherty, M. (2019). Promoting an accessible learning environment for students with disabilities via faculty development (Practice Brief). Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability32(1), 91-99.

Jaffray, B. (2020). Experiences of violent victimization and unwanted sexual behaviours among gay, lesbian, bisexual and other sexual minority people, and the transgender population, in Canada, 2018. Juristat: Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, 1-27.

New Jersey General Assembly. (2019). Child Trafficking Awareness for School Districts. In Senate Bill A-1428/S-2653 (P.L.2019, c.189).

North Carolina General Assembly. (2015). Amend Qualifications/Practice of Counseling. In Senate Bill 279/S.L. 2015-279. 2015/Bills/Senate/PDF/S279v6.pdf

Reid, J. A. (2016). Sex trafficking of girls with intellectual disabilities: An exploratory mixed-methods study. Sexual Abuse, 30(2), 107–131.

Robinson, S., Frawley, P., & Dyson, S. (2021). Access and accessibility in domestic and family violence services for women with disabilities: Widening the lens. Violence Against Women, 27(6–7), 918–936.

Rothman, E. F., Bair-Merritt, M., & Broder-Fingert, S. (2020). A feasibility test of an online class to prevent dating violence for autistic youth: A brief report. Journal of Family Violence, 1-7.

Stern, E., van der Heijden, I., & Dunkle, K. (2020). How people with disabilities experience programs to prevent intimate partner violence across four countries. Evaluation and Program Planning, 79, 101770.

U.S. Department of Education. (2015). Human trafficking in America’s schools. 1–14.

U.S. Department of Education. (2020). IDEA—45 years later.


Social Media and Sex Trafficking: Ending the Spread of Misinformation

by Sarah Godoy


The COVID-19 global pandemic has significantly increased Internet and social media use, including content creation and consumption, among youth and adults across the world. As current events emerge as a focal point of social media content, users often rely on these platforms as convenient mechanisms to widely disseminate and receive information. Notably, consciousness raising content along with trending hashtags have given rise to and advanced important social justice initiatives, such as the Black Lives Matters movement and anti-child sex trafficking efforts. Child sex trafficking, also known as the commercial sexual exploitation of children, can be defined as inducing a minor into commercial sexual activity for anything of value.

Social media has myriad benefits such as the proliferation of a new form of activism and the promotion of time-sensitive information at rapid speed. The rise of online activism and decentralization of available news has amplified diverse perspectives, experiences, and content that are frequently absent from mainstream media. The increase in social media usage has led to a surge in child sex trafficking content and important information sharing about online threats to youths’ safety. Despite the countless benefits of social media there are prevalent unintended and even harmful consequences of sex trafficking related to misinformation. The rapid spread of misinformation, defined as false or inaccurate content conveyed as fact or truth, is cause for concern, as experts in the anti-sex trafficking field remain wary of unvetted sources and unsubstantiated claims in circulation.

The constant inundation of new and shocking information may desensitize users’ ability to distinguish between evidence-based content and unfounded theories or opinion about child sex trafficking. Additionally, the lack of consistent regulations or oversight of potentially harmful content across social media platforms may unintentionally allow the spread of inaccurate claims. Misinformation is insidious and can be circulated among the general public as well as by people within the anti-trafficking field. It may be difficult for many to distinguish between false narratives and true trafficking accounts, resulting in unintentional reports of unsubstantiated claims. The unintentional (and at times intentional) spreading of misinformation and unfounded conspiracy theories by concerned social media users hinders anti-trafficking efforts.

Misinformation harms individuals and communities experiencing exploitation by redirecting attention and needed resources away from intervention efforts aimed at eradicating trafficking. The Wayfair child trafficking conspiracy theory, for example, was widely circulated among social media platforms and, subsequently, mainstream media. While this conspiracy theory was ultimately proven to be false, it resulted in the National Human Trafficking Hotline receiving hundreds of thoughts of baseless claims that impacted their ability to provide help in-real time to individuals being victimized and service providers requiring consultation. This case exemplifies how misinformation undermines the bandwidth of service providers, misappropriates limited resources, and delegitimizes reliable agencies and efforts. Thus, the circulation of false information that is not appropriately vetted is not helpful in ending trafficking.

Still, digital technologies, including social media platforms, are viable mechanisms to increase interconnectivity and expedite knowledge sharing across spatial boundaries. Though we cannot measure the full impact or lasting implications of misinformed social media content, understanding how to identify credible sources may mitigate the negative effects and encourage sex trafficking awareness.

Here are 5 key ways social media content creators and consumers can avoid and prevent the spread of sex trafficking related misinformation:

  1. Think before you post. Ask yourself, is this information based in evidence or opinion?
  2. Check the source. Ensure the content is shared from a credible and reliable source.
  3. Get educated. Learn more by attending an online training, reading available information, and watching discussions about sex trafficking.
  4. Support local agencies. Donating your time or resources to local, credible anti-trafficking agencies may increase your knowledge about the issue in your area.
  5. Share credible information. Spread information that is credible and provides evidence to support claims (like this post).


Community members and service providers can contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline toll-free at 1-888-373-7888, or text the words “help” or “info” to 233733 (BEFREE).

Supporting Justice-Involved Youth Impacted by Commercial Sexual Exploitation

by Hannabeth Franchino-Olsen and Greeshma James


The United States is infamous for having the highest incarceration rate in the world. This trend extends to incarceration of youth as well – over 700,000 youth were arrested in the U.S. in 2018. While arrests have been declining in recent years, incarceration still disproportionately impacts minority youth and youth with histories of trauma and victimization. Youth who experience commercial sexual exploitation (CSE), commonly referred to as sex trafficking, are often overrepresented in the juvenile justice system. Youth impacted by CSE are likely to have a history of sexual abuse, running away, mental health disorders, poverty, substance use, and other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).1 While all youth in the justice system have higher rates of adverse experiences than the general population, those impacted by CSE experience the highest rates of ACEs, highlighting a critical need for trauma-informed services that facilitate rehabilitation.2

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), enacted in 2000, created federal law that all minors engaged in commercial sex were victims of sex trafficking. This means that minors who exchange commercial sex (with or without force, fraud, or coercion from the sex-buyer or a third-party trafficker) are experiencing sex trafficking. Despite the passage of this landmark legislation, there has been a need for states to enact trafficking laws since most incidents of minors exchanging sex are considered as juvenile prostitution cases and are handled in state courts.3 Safe Harbor laws are state-level legislations intended to provide legal protection for minors involved in commercial sex acts and divert them toward social services.4 As of 2018, there were 35 states with safe harbor policies, but the laws vary widely in their coverage and provision of services.5 As a result, youth involved in trafficking are still arrested for prostitution or other charges related to their exploitation.6

Furthermore, the juvenile justice system does not universally screen for CSE, which hinders the identification of victims, delivery of appropriate services, and discharge planning. The missed opportunities for intervention can be detrimental to youth affected by CSE.5 Upon release, justice involved youth are likely to return to their trafficker for a myriad of reasons, including emotional attachment and financial necessity. Because their CSE experiences may prevent them from completing high school, vocational training, or college, limited employment prospects may make them more vulnerable to both juvenile justice involvement and re-entering illegal economies after leaving the justice system.5 Since youth impacted by CSE typically have histories of adverse experiences, the criminalization process may re-traumatize them and exacerbate their vulnerability to exploitation in the future.7

Black youth in the juvenile justice system

While all youth with histories of adverse experiences may be considered vulnerable to CSE, race as a result of racism is a critical factor that further marginalizes youth. In 2018, approximately 38% of minors arrested for prostitution were Black.8 Multiple studies have noted that Black youth, specifically Black girls, are disproportionately involved in the juvenile justice system and among victims of CSE.1,2,9,10 The distrust that trafficked youth have for law enforcement is often amplified among Black youth, who are more likely to be criminalized.9

Racist policies underpin the disproportionate impact of CSE on Black youth. Structural inequities as evidenced by disparate economic opportunities, educational attainment, and the school-to-prison pipeline, informs vulnerability to CSE. The intersectionality of racism and gender inequality places Black girls in an especially precarious position.9 Black girls’ behavior and trauma responses are often interpreted as aggressive and violent, as opposed to White girls’ behavior, which is often perceived with sympathy.11 Negative stereotypes of Black girls, including adultification and hyper-sexualization, further marginalizes them.12

A notable example of the system’s unjust treatment of Black girls and women is the case of Cyntoia Brown, a survivor of child sex trafficking who was sentenced to life in prison at 16 after fatally shooting a buyer in self-defense. Her case drew national attention, and she was eventually released on parole in 2019 after 15 years of incarceration. While Brown’s release is an encouraging triumph, there are undoubtedly many others like her who are in the justice system for behaviors resulting from their exploitation.11

Emerging solutions

Specialty courts have emerged as an approach to ensure timely and appropriate intervention for youth impacted by CSE. These courts aim to provide specialized, trauma-informed treatment rather than punishment to prevent recidivism and to rehabilitate youth.

The Succeeding Through Achievement and Resilience (STAR) Court in Los Angeles County, California, is a voluntary diversion program that uses a trauma-informed, multidisciplinary design to better address the needs of justice-involved youth. A study that reviewed the efficacy of STAR Court found that youth involved in the program benefited from the increased identification of mental health and substance use needs and subsequent treatment referrals as well as improved stability as demonstrated by fewer instances of running away and substantiated child welfare allegations. The findings suggest that this model of intervention may be effective in reducing future contact with the justice system and risky behaviors.1

The specialty court model is increasing in popularity, with more states adopting it as an intervention. However, it is not without criticism. New York has a network of human trafficking courts, but there is a lack of consistent data collection to measure progress and achievement of goals. Critics also state that the model does not provide enough practical assistance related to finances or employment and that it does not address structural inequities that create vulnerability to trafficking. Nevertheless, the specialty court intervention appears to hold promise for providing more comprehensive care for youth impacted by CSE, and has potential to be improved upon with rigorous data collection and lessons learned from programs around the country.1


  • Enact Safe Harbor laws in all states and improve existing laws to expand provisions for survivors, such as immunity from prosecution and comprehensive legal, health, and social services.13
  • Screen all youth in the justice system for CSE and connect them with appropriate services.5
  • Place youth impacted by CSE in well-equipped residential facilities when possible.14
  • Increase access to behavioral health services to youth impacted by CSE.14
  • Provide youth with the opportunity to participate in survivor-led and other peer mentorship programs, as well as education and job training.7
  • Integrate anti-racism into the justice system by 1) acknowledging the racial disparities in youth impacted by CSE and assessing the role of increased criminalization in furthering these disparities, 2) centering Black youth and girls in discourse surrounding CSE, and 3) investing resources in low-income communities.9
  • Explore court interventions tailored for male and gender nonconforming youth impacted by CSE.1
  • Train first responders to identify youth impacted by CSE and coordinate with other agencies to provide youth with the services they need.15
  • Plan and implement interagency protocols for collaborations between different systems (e.g. juvenile justice system and community-based service providers).15
  • Collect data for interventions with consistency to inform future efforts.15


  1. Bath EP, Godoy SM, Morris TC, et al. A specialty court for U.S. youth impacted by commercial sexual exploitation. Child Abuse Negl. 2020;100:104041. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2019.104041
  2. Naramore R, Bright MA, Epps N, Hardt NS. Youth Arrested for Trading Sex Have the Highest Rates of Childhood Adversity: A Statewide Study of Juvenile Offenders. Sex Abuse J Res Treat. 2017;29(4):396-410. doi:10.1177/1079063215603064
  3. Fahy S. Juvenile Prostitution and Safe Harbor Laws. :19.
  4. Cole J, Sprang G. Post-implementation of a Safe Harbor law in the U.S.: Review of state administrative data. Child Abuse Negl. 2020;101:104320. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2019.104320
  5. O’Brien JE, Li W, Givens A, Leibowitz GS. Domestic minor sex trafficking among adjudicated male youth: prevalence and links to treatment. Child Youth Serv Rev. 2017;82:392-399. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2017.09.026
  6. Walker K. Ending the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children–A Call for Multi-System Collaboration in California. California Child Welfare Council; 2013.
  7. Barnert ES, Abrams S, Azzi VF, Ryan G, Brook R, Chung PJ. Identifying best practices for “Safe Harbor” legislation to protect child sex trafficking victims: Decriminalization alone is not sufficient. Child Abuse Negl. 2016;51:249-262. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2015.10.002
  8. Demographic characteristics of juvenile arrests, 2018. OJJDP Statistical Briefing Book. Published October 31, 2019. Accessed February 9, 2021.
  9. Phillips J. Black Girls and the (Im)Possibilities of a Victim Trope: The Intersectional Failures of Legal and Advocacy Interventions in the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Minors in the United States. UCLA Law Rev. Published online 2015:35.
  10. Greeson JKP, Treglia D, Wolfe DS, Wasch S, Gelles RJ. Child welfare characteristics in a sample of youth involved in commercial sex: An exploratory study. Child Abuse Negl. 2019;94:104038. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2019.104038
  11. Bejinariu A, Kennedy MA, Cimino AN. “They said they were going to help us get through this …”: documenting interactions between police and commercially sexually exploited youth. J Crime Justice. Published online August 20, 2020:1-17. doi:10.1080/0735648X.2020.1807389
  12. Alley D, Silberkleit G, Bederian-Gardner D, Goodman GS. Race-Based Sexual Stereotypes Influence Ratings of Child Victims in Sexual Abuse Cases. Int J Child Maltreatment Res Policy Pract. 2019;2(4):287-308. doi:10.1007/s42448-019-00034-5
  13. Fedina L, Williamson C, Perdue T. Risk Factors for Domestic Child Sex Trafficking in the United States. J Interpers Violence. 2019;34(13):2653-2673. doi:10.1177/0886260516662306
  14. Trejbalová T, Monaghan H, Kennedy MA, Decker MR, Cimino AN. Detention Experiences of Commercial Sexual Exploitation Survivors. Fem Criminol. 2020;16(1):73-90. doi:10.1177/1557085120939656
  15. Abrams LS, Godoy SM, Bath EP, Barnert ES. Collaborative Responses to Commercial Sexual Exploitation as a Model of Smart Decarceration. Soc Work. Published online December 4, 2020:swaa040. doi:10.1093/sw/swaa040