Across the country, thousands of children and youth are bought and sold for sex every year. Despite increased attention to the issue of commercial sexual exploitation of children and youth (CSEC) and a growing recognition that these young people should be supported as victims of child abuse, rather than criminalized, there is a dearth of research about the most effective types of services and placements for this population. The research that does exist rarely takes into account the perspectives of children and youth about their own experiences.
To help fill this gap, the National Center for Youth Law teamed up with Cal State LA and Los Angeles County to produce a first-of-its kind study  exploring the impact of specialized services and placement type on young people who have been commercially sexually exploited in Los Angeles County. And to make sure that we heard from youth directly about their experiences in their own words, the study combined both administrative data from the Probation Department and Department of Children and Family Services, along with insights from youth through surveys of over 100 youth and interviews with six young women. Kate Walker Brown, Director of NCYL’s Collaborative Responses to Commercial Sexual Exploitation Initiative, and Carly Dierkhising of Cal State LA, presented the results of the study to the Board of Supervisors on November 13.
In this study, youth shared their stories, their experiences with and preferences for services and placements, and what helped and is helping them heal and live healthy, full lives. Some key themes from the youth surveys and interviews include:
- Many youth had deep histories of trauma, including physical, emotional and sexual abuse, domestic violence, familial instability, and grief and loss, often beginning in early childhood, as well as extensive system involvement prior to exploitation. By failing to identify and address trauma early on, and rather reacting to and often criminalizing the resulting behaviors, there were missed opportunities to support youth and their families and to prevent future trauma, including exploitation;
- Despite commonalities, children and youth who have experienced exploitation are individuals with needs, strengths, goals, and interests beyond their histories of exploitation. They want and appreciate having space to share their unique perspectives, participate in decisions about their lives, and have support in meeting the goals they have set out for themselves;
- Youth overwhelmingly felt that specialized services, including probation officers and social workers specially trained to work with youth who have experienced exploitation, specialized community-based advocates, and dedicated collaborative courts, were helpful;
- Nearly all (99%) of youth who had been exploited had experiences running away from home or care. Youth left home or care for many reasons, including because of abuse, violence, or fighting in their homes, they wanted to be nearer to friends and family while in care, or their exploiters forced them to;
- Most youth preferred placements that were smaller, home-like settings, such as foster homes or small group homes, because they got more personal attention from staff and they had quieter, calmer environments; but many youth appreciated the broader range of activities and staff that large group homes can provide; and
- Consistent connections to positive, supportive, well-trained, non-judgmental staff, as well as the opportunity to maintain relationships with peers and families, was key to helping youth engage with services and find more stability, wellbeing, and healing.
The Probation and DCFS data provided further insight into the characteristics of youth identified as exploited, the placement stability associated with different types of placements, and the impact of specialized services on placement stability. Key findings include:
- Significant racial disproportionality among exploited youth, with nearly two thirds of the youth being African American (as compared to 7% of the general child population) and one third Latina/x (as compared to 61% of the general child population);
- Youth in the DCFS sample were approximately 6 years old at the time of first child welfare referral, and 11 years old at first placement in out-of-home care; youth who were later exploited had more prior referrals to child welfare than other youth (CSE youth: 9.2 referrals; non-CSE youth: 7.2 referrals).
- Youth identified as commercially sexually exploited had significantly more total placements, and more placement changes, than other youth. Running away was a major reason for placement change for youth in both the DCFS and Probation samples; and most placement changes due to running away were from group homes.
- Specialized services appear to have some impact on placement stability. Youth in the Probation sample who received specialized services who were placed in medium-sized group homes had longer lengths of stay than those not receiving specialized services. Youth in the DCFS sample who received specialized services had longer lengths of stay in foster family agency homes.
- For youth in the Probation sample, the longest length of stay was in small, out-of-county placements, but this placement type was not widely used. For local placements, youth stayed the longest and had the fewest placement changes in medium-sized group homes. For youth in the DCFS sample, large, out-of-county placements had the longest lengths of stay, and the shortest average stays were in medium-sized group homes.
Through this study, we learned more about the youth we are serving, and much of this knowledge was gleaned directly from youth, in their own words. We also uncovered a great deal about whether different placements and services are having impacts on youth, in terms of their placement stability as well as how youth are are experiencing them. We identified key components that all placements and services should include, such as trauma-informed and culturally appropriate care, multi-disciplinary collaboration, well-trained and well-supported staff, processes for seeking and incorporating youth feedback about decisions affecting their lives, and a robust data system to further evaluate what is working and what isn’t.
“The collaborative work between the Integrated Leadership Team, Cal State LA, and the National Center for Youth Law is exemplary and demonstrates the success we can achieve tackling tough issues when we work together,” said Supervisor Hilda L. Solis.
Although we did not uncover a single placement type or service that helped all youth, the study serves as an important reminder that each child or youth is an individual beyond their experience with exploitation, and has a unique history, needs, interests, and goals. We must also remember that at a basic level, young people want to feel loved and cared for by supportive, understanding, non-judgmental adults, and those relationships can be transformative for a youth. As one young woman interviewed in the study explained, “Y’all should give the girls hope, like they have something to live for.”
Equipped with this deeper understanding of youth experiences and the impact of placements and services on their lives, the National Center for Youth Law’s Collaborative Responses to Commercial Sexual Exploitation Initiative will continue to support Los Angeles County and jurisdictions around the country as they develop and improve collaborative, supportive, youth-centered placements and services.