Serving Runaway Homeless Youth who are Domestic Victims of Human Trafficking

June 22, 2018
Young woman holding an umbrella

Human trafficking is a crime that involves the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of an individual for the purposes of labor or a commercial sex act through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. The term domestic human trafficking refers to U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents who are victims of sex or labor trafficking. Vulnerable youth (e.g., system-involved youth, those with poor family connections and/or lack of community support) are at high-risk of becoming victims of these crimes. For individuals under the age of 18 who are compelled to perform a commercial sex act (any sex act on account of which anything of value is given to or received by any person), force, fraud, or coercion need not occur (Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000).

Runaway homeless youth are particularly vulnerable to sex and labor trafficking. They lack basic needs, housing, and viable employment opportunities; may be isolated from family, friends, and communities; and are reluctant to seek help from law enforcement and service systems. They often face serious personal challenges, such as a history of physical and sexual abuse, chemical addiction, and discrimination due to their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.

Domestic trafficking victims, and runaway homeless youth victims in particular, have multiple and complex service needs. Recognizing the need to improve our understanding of practice strategies to identify and engage victims in comprehensive service delivery, the Administration for Children and Families’ Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) awarded six demonstration grants, three in 2014 and three in 2015, to provide comprehensive case management and coordinated care services to domestic victims of human trafficking. The first three of these grant projects were completed in September 2016, and the second three are ongoing.

Phoenix-based Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development, a community-based organization that serves homeless youth, used their FYSB demonstration grant to expand existing services for domestic trafficking victims who are 12-24 years of age. Melissa Brockie, Director of Tumbleweed’s project, explained, “Human trafficking wasn’t a new issue for us, we had some foundation in this work. The grant helped us build up what we already had.” Brockie went on to explain, “We had the data to say this is significant in our community and we, as runaway and homeless youth serving agencies, cannot pretend like this is not an issue that we don’t get involved with.” Collaboration and partnerships are key elements in the fight against human trafficking. Tumbleweed partnered with multiple stakeholders, but one of its more innovative collaborations was with researchers at Arizona State University (ASU) to investigate the prevalence of sex trafficking experiences among homeless young people who received services from Tumbleweed and two other community-based organizations. Their findings were astounding: Of the 215 homeless youth surveyed, 35.8% reported a history of sex trafficking. LGBTQ youth reported higher incidence of sex trafficking experiences (45%) compared to heterosexual youth (28%)[1]. With FYSB grant funds, Tumbleweed used these findings to improve their services, increase staff’s awareness of youth who may be trafficked, and train staff to identify “red flags” of human trafficking among their clients. Tumbleweed also partnered with ASU to provide trainings to other youth-serving organizations to raise awareness and expand community capacity to identify and meet the needs of trafficking victims.

The FYSB grant also increased Tumbleweed’s capacity to work with runaway and homeless youth who are victims of human trafficking. Brockie said, “The grant pushed us to provide more comprehensive services and really look at a victim-centered approach. We’ve always been client-centered, but I think this really made us look at trauma-informed care or the impact of trauma on our clients.” She explained that trafficking victims need to feel empowered and, instead of following a formulaic program, victims need a personalized approach that allows for flexibility and baby steps towards goals. Additionally, she noted, “Part of the biggest piece is just helping them understand their own experience and their rights.”

Given the prevalence of human trafficking among homeless and runaway youth, youth-serving organizations should be prepared to a) integrate prevention tools into existing programs; b) assist in the identification of youth victims of trafficking; and c) identify ways to provide services or referrals to trafficked youth.

If you want to learn more about what your program can do to identify and assist youth victims of human trafficking, please check FYSB’s human trafficking tip sheet Visit disclaimer page .

[1] Roe-Sepowitz, D., Brockie, M. and Bracy, K. (2015). Youth Experiences Survey: Exploring the Sex Trafficking Experiences of Homeless Young Adults in Arizona, Year 2. Available: (PDF) Visit disclaimer page (PDF, 1,247KB)