Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CESC)  and Youth Homelessness

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National Alliance to End Homelessness

Solutions Brief | November 15, 2011

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Below is an excerpt of this issue brief. To access the full brief, please download the publication using the link above.

Issue Brief: Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CESC) and Youth Homelessness

CSEC is A Growing Problem

It is commonly estimated that 100,000 children are victims of commercial sexual exploitation each year. Futher, there is evidence that the number of children being exploited is increasing. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reports there is an increase in the online solicitation and “grooming” of children for CSEC, the incidence and violence of online pornography involving children, and online advertisements of children available for prostitution.

CSEC may be growing in part because it is highly lucrative. DOJ reports CSEC is growing in popularity because it conveys greater financial gains with fewer risks than the drug trade and other illegal activities. It is also challenging for law enforcement to combat. Solicitation of prostitution is moving from city streets to online forums and pimps move children frequently between cities. It is difficult, therefore, to identify children victimized by CSEC and when children are identified they are more likely to be arrested for prostitution than those who solicited or exploited them.

CSEC and Human Trafficking

Children who are victims of CSEC and youth over 18 who engage in sexual acts as a result of coercion, fraud, or force are also considered to be victims of human trafficking under federal statute. This applies to children and youth engaged in pornography, sexual entertainment industries, “survival sex” (trading sex to meet youth’s basic needs for food and shelter), and prostitution. Children are considered to be victims of trafficking even when they seem to be engaging willingly in sexual acts. CSEC is the most common form of human trafficking of U.S. citizens and runaway and homeless youth are often its victims.

Victims of CSEC Often Fall Through Cracks

Though children engaged in prostitution are victims of trafficking, many law enforcement and legal systems still view them as juvenile delinquents. The State Department acknowledges that within the U.S., “the prostitution of children has traditionally been handled as a vice crime or juvenile justice issue and the anti-trafficking approach … has been slow to fully permeate state child protection and juvenile justice systems.” As a result, children who have been victimized by CSEC are more likely to be incarcerated in detention facilities than to receive therapeutic services. Advocates argue this undermines efforts to combat CSEC and places children at risk of future victimization.

Federal agencies also report that children victimized by CSEC often go unidentified by runaway and homeless youth providers though the population they serve is at particular risk. As a result, these agencies are not able to protect children from ongoing victimization or connect them to appropriate services and supports that can help them recover.

Runaway and Homeless Youth Are Susceptible to CSEC

It is estimated that 2.2 percent of children under the age of 18 who have a runaway or homeless episode, approximately 39,000 children annually, are sexually assaulted or are victimized by CSEC during that experience. The longer, and more often, children and youth are on the streets, the higher the risk that they will be victimized by CSEC. Children victimized by CSEC often have fractured relationships with their families and most have histories of abuse and neglect.

Runaway and homeless children are vulnerable to CSEC both because of their young age and their circumstances. High numbers of youth who are homeless report having been solicited for prostitution and pimps have been known to actively target locations where homeless children and youth congregate, including on the streets, at foster care group homes, and at runaway and homeless shelter programs.

Law enforcement reports that children are used to recruit other children into CSEC from shelter and drop-in programs for homeless youth. Runaway and homeless youth can also be victimized by those who prey on their emotional vulnerability. Children are often introduced to CSEC by a boyfriend who initially provides loving attention, care, and emotional support before coercing them into prostitution. On the streets or in shelter, they may be seen as easy prey by those who want to take advantage of their desperate need for a place to stay, food, money, or emotional support.

Housing and Service Interventions Are in Short Supply

There is a severe shortage of shelter and transitional housing programs to serve children and youth experiencing homelessness. Most emergency shelters for youth have time limits of three weeks and there can be lengthy waits for longer-term transitional housing. The youth homelessness system simply lacks the capacity to respond to all children at risk of CSEC who are on the streets.

Expanding access to emergency housing options can reduce the risk that runaway and homeless youth will be victims of CSEC but further progress requires minimizing the length of time young people remain homeless. This can be achieved by helping homeless children and youth quickly reunify with family and quickly connecting those who cannot be reunified to long-term transitional housing and support services.

There are also few housing options for children rescued from CSEC. Some children cannot be safely restored to their family or their former foster care home. There are fewer than 100 beds nationally in programs that have been specifically designed for children who are survivors of CSEC. With few alternatives, courts may choose to detain children in juvenile detention facilities simply because other safe temporary housing options do not exist to protect them.

Many advocates and legal professionals argue that child welfare agencies should provide for the long-term care of children victimized by CSEC who cannot be restored to their families. Local child welfare agencies are reportedly often reluctant to absorb responsibility for these children, particularly those over the age of 15. As a result, children victimized by CSEC may fall through the cracks between local juvenile justice and child welfare systems, never receiving appropriate care.