Identifying Efficacious Social Work Interventions For Child Sex Trafficking Capstone Project



Although the social justice issue of child sexual trafficking is widely regarded by the American public as a problem that is faced by other nations, particularly impoverished developing countries, the harsh reality is that child sex trafficking routinely occurs in the United States as well. While exact numbers about its prevalence in the United States are unavailable, it is known that sex trafficking, including men, women and children, occurs in all 50 states. The purpose of this study is to provide a review of the relevant literature concerning child sexual abuse and trafficking in the United States, including how young victims are typically groomed for sexual exploitation. In addition, a discussion of the specialized social work practice of child sex trafficking, including the multiple ethical issues that are involved, is following by a description of an evidence-based intervention with proven efficacy as an intervention for child sex trafficking victims. Finally, a discussion concerning the implications of the findings for professional social work practice concludes the study.

Child Sexual Abuse/Trafficking/Grooming

Section 1: Social Justice Section

Description of Social Justice Issue:

Although precise figures are unavailable, one of the pressing human rights issues facing the nation today is the prevalence of child sexual abuse and trafficking as well as the active grooming of young children for these illicit purposes. In fact, current estimates indicate that at least 4.5 million people are victims of sex trafficking globally. Moreover, it has become increasingly apparent that even affluent nations such as the United States are not immune from these criminal activities. In this regard, the Polaris Project emphasizes that, While the prevalence of sex trafficking in the United States is still unknown, we do know that women, children, and men are being sold for sex against their will in cities and towns in all 50 states. A shocking number of these victims are citizens of the United States (Sex Trafficking in the United States, 2019, p. 1).

Social Justice Issue Literature Review

As the research that follows shows, a serious threat to vulnerable populations, most especially women and children, exists in this country but it remains largely out of the public discourse for multiple reasons, most especially the wide array of other existential threats that are already arrayed against Americans. In this regard, a recent report by Saric (2022) pointed out that, Overlapping crises from the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change to armed conflicts have caused unprecedented disruption to employment and education and increased extreme poverty, unsafe migration and gender-based violence, leading to a heightened risk of modern slavery (para. 3),

Moreover, besides the lack of precise numbers and jurisdictions, the problem of sex trafficking and abuse of children is further exacerbated by the varied strategies by which they are overtly forced or covertly groomed for these purposes. In some cases, young people become victims of sex trafficking after becoming romantically involved with individuals who exploit them by either forcing them into or otherwise manipulating them into sex work. In other cases, young people are actually sold into sexual slavery by family members, including their parents. In addition, some young people are also tricked into sex work by the use of fake promises for real jobs such as modeling or legitimate entertainment (Sex Trafficking in the United States, 2019).

In the context of sex abuse and trafficking, the term grooming refers to situations wherein young people are exploited by others that have established some type of emotional relationship such as in the above-mentioned cases of romantic involvement or by family members. In some cases, young people are groomed by professionals with whom they have established a close relationship. Grooming is an especially insidious antecedent of outright sexual abuse and trafficking since it takes advantage of young peoples vulnerabilities to manipulation, naivete due to a lack of relevant life experiences and an overall inability to prevent these outcomes. Further, children are groomed by both adult men and women of all ages, and children may not realize what is being done to them or that these practices constitute abuse (Human trafficking, 2022).

Although every young persons experience is unique in some ways, there are some general patterns that are used to groom children for sexual exploitation. The stages described in Table 1 below represent some of the general practices that are used for this purpose.

Table 1

Grooming practices used on children for sexual exploitation



Stage 1: Targeting the Victim

The initial stage involves offenders evaluating potential victims for various vulnerabilities such as isolation, diminished self-confidence and emotional neediness. Children that have sporadic or inconsistent parental oversight are special targets.

Stage 2: Gaining the Victims Trust

Many sexual offenders seem to possess an intuitive ability to discern what actions will most effectively facilitate trust-building with a young child such as identifying their needs and how best to satisfy them. Because every child and situation is different, sexual predators require a fine-tuned sense of what actions are most appropriate. Further, truly successful sexual predators are naturally charismatic and are also capable of gaining caregiver a style ='color:#000;text-decoration: underline!important;' id='custom' target='_blank' href=''>trust to as to gain greater access to the child.

Stage 3: Filling a Need

After sexual predators start satisfying a childs needs, the adult offender will become more important to the child to the point where they are idealized. Childrens perceived needs may include greater attention paid, gifts or affection. This level of involvement by adults in childrens lives also represents a red flag of potential abuse for parents or other caregivers.

Stage 4: Isolating the Child

During this stage, sexual predators leverage the burgeoning close relationship with children in order to devise opportunities to be alone with them such as tutoring, babysitting, coaching and outings. This stage serves the purpose of reinforcing the close relationship between the adult predator and their targeted children, an outcome that is accelerated when parents or caregivers demonstrate appreciation for these efforts. The net effect of this stage of grooming is to inculcate a sense that a special relationship exists that is worthy of continuance.

Stage 5: Sexualizing the Relationship

Based on the growing levels of trust between the sexual offender and his or her targeted child, the relationship becomes increasingly sexualized through various stratagems such as looking at pictures together, having intimate conversations and arranging situations where both are either nude or nearly so such as swimming. These encounters desensitize the child to the point where the sexual predator can take advantage of his or her natural curiosity by engaging in preliminary sexual activities.

Stage 6: Maintaining Control

The final stage involves the sexual offender emphasizing the need for secrecy about the relationship with a child, and attempt to place the blame for it directly on the child in order to coerce continued silence and participation. This is regarded as essential by sexual predators since outright sexual activities can result in children trying to end the relationship.

Source: Adapted from Sex Trafficking in the United States, 2019

Although the stages of grooming described in Table 1 above resemble the actions recommended by a CIA guidebook for surveillance and insurgent recruitment in hostile lands, sexual predators do not have a manual to show them the ropes. It is reasonable to suggest, though, that these stages do represent the general fashion in which young children become victims of sexual abuse and trafficking through grooming. Despite the amount of time and effort that sexual predators invest in recruiting their latest victims, the process is not all that difficult for those individuals who are bent on exploiting children who are especially vulnerable to such actions and possess some personal attributes that facilitate these activities.

In many cases, the relationship that is developed through grooming is a mix of carrots and sticks. In this regard, the specialists at Trafficking in America Task Force (2022) make it clear that, Children in these entangled relationships and at this point they are entangled confront threats to blame them, to end the relationship and to end the emotional and material needs they associate with the relationship, whether it be the dirt bikes the child gets to ride, the coaching one receives, special outings or other gifts (Human trafficking, 2022, para. 5). Further, besides any positive incentives children may receive for participating in sexual relations with offenders, these young people may come to believe that revealing the relationship will result in their humiliation and make them feel even more unwanted (Human trafficking, 2022)

It is also important to note that despite the stereotypical image of a sexual predator as male, especially the funny uncle relative, a small but likely severely underestimated percentage of women also engage in sexual predation and grooming in the United States today. For example, the results of a recent study by Kaylor et al. (2022) found that, Two percent of those who commit sex crimes are women, most of which involve child victims. However, victimization surveys suggest the true rate of female-perpetrated child sexual abuse is significantly higher than official statistics, and that it is under-detected and under-reported (p. 503). In sharp contrast to the growing body of knowledge concerning male sexual predators, far less is known concerning the methods that are used by women for grooming children for sexual exploitation (Kaylor et al., 2022). Nevertheless, the limited amount of research in this area indicates that women use many of the same tactics set forth in Table 1 above for sexual grooming, most especially in the cases of child sex traffickers and female educators (Kaylor et al., 2022).

Policies and Legislation:

In the United States, besides fundamental Thirteenth Amendment protections against involuntary servitude, human trafficking is also addressed by the federal laws and regulations set forth in Table 2 below.

Table 2

Human Trafficking Laws and Regulations



U.S. Code, Title 22, Chapter 78 - Trafficking Victims Protection Act

The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act...…facilitate informed participation by the public in shaping social policies and institutions.

6.04 Social and Political Action

(a) Social workers should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions to meet basic human needs and promote social justice.

(b) Social workers should act to expand choice and opportunity for all people, with special regard for vulnerable, disadvantaged, oppressed, and exploited people and groups.

(d) Social workers should act to prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person, group, or class on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical ability.

Although all of the above-cited sections of the NASW Code of Ethics are applicable to child sex trafficking and abuse, Section 6.04, Social and Political Action, is directly on-point concerning the need for social workers to help protect this vulnerable population.

Ethical Implications:

Social workers in taxpayer-supported public agencies who are confronted with suspected or through court ordered cases of child sex trafficking or abuse must keep the childs best interests at the forefront while ensuring that all legal reporting requirements are satisfied. For this purpose, the use of the evidence-based motivational interviewing intervention is appropriate in many cases that involve young people (MacDonell et al., 2022). Not surprisingly, though, there are multiple ethical issues that are involved in this social work calculus, particularly given the intractability of the problem to change through social work interventions alone. In some cases, victims may not realize they are being abused or trafficked or even if they do, they may be reluctant to fully engage with a social worker for a constellation of personal reasons which make children reluctant to fully reveal a clandestine relationship with a sexual predator, especially family members.

Certainly, no child wants to be responsible for a parent, for example, being incarcerated for length periods of time even if they are being victimized. Likewise, children may be easily manipulated by sexual predators into thinking that social workers are akin to law enforcement authorities and are should be feared. Indeed, Hughes and Jonas (2020) cite the poor record of many criminal justice systems in responding to sexual offending against children in ways that protect them and acknowledge the serious harms that such offending imposes (p. 95). Taken together, it is reasonable to suggest that social workers in public agencies will likely encounter several ethical dilemmas even with a single client as they seek to balance the best interests of children who are victims of sexual exploitation with their legally mandated reporting requirements.

Moving Forward:

Just as high blood pressure is characterized as the silent killer by healthcare professionals, the problem of child sex trafficking and abuse remains largely out of the public sphere. Social workers can play an important role in helping raise public awareness concerning this threat to children in the United States including the warning signs of trafficking and abuse. In addition, it is also vitally important to ensure that community-based social work resources are available for youth victims of sex trafficking and abuse since they are lacking in many American communities today. In this regard, analysts at the Polaris Project emphasize that, While communities have begun to build better responses to the needs of this vulnerable population, services are still desperately needed to help the women, girls, men, and boys who often lack access to services and help (Sex Trafficking in the United States, 2019, para. 6). Finally, greater attention must be paid to identifying strategies that prevent children from being victimized by sex traffickers (Sex Trafficking in the United States, 2019).


The research showed that current estimates indicate that thousands of foreign national children are sex trafficked into the United States and hundreds of thousands of children in the United States are at risk of being trafficked within the country each year. Although the circumstances under which children become victims of sexual predation vary and each case is unique, there are some common aspects that are involved which can help social workers better understand how children become the targets of sexual offenders and what steps can be taken to prevent this outcome. In those cases where children are already victims, social workers can play an important role in developing the forensic evidence that law enforcement authorities need to prosecute child sexual predators as well as helping these young people regain normalcy in their lives. Finally, empowerment provides social workers with the confidence and self-efficacy that are needed to apply the most appropriate evidence-based solutions…

Sources Used in Documents:


Empowerment method. (2022). St. Ambrose University. Retrieved from https://www.sau. edu/master-of-social-work/empowerment-method.

Evidence-based social work. (2022). Virginia Commonwealth University. Retrieved from

Finne, J., Ekeland, T.-J., & Malmberg-Heimonen, I. (2022). Social workers use of knowledge in an evidence-based framework: a mixed methods study. European Journal of Social Work, 25(3), 443–456.

Flynn, S. (2021). Social Constructionism and Social Care: Theoretically Informed Review of the Literature on Evidence Informed Practice within the Professionalization of Social Care Professionals Who Work with Children in Ireland. Child Care in Practice, 27(1), 87–104.

Hughes, J. A., & Jonas, M. (2020). Weighing Ethical Considerations in Proposed Non-recent Child Sexual Abuse Investigations: A Response to Maslen and Paine’s Oxford CSA Framework. Criminal Justice Ethics, 39(2), 95–110.

Human trafficking. (2022). Trafficking in America Task Force. Retrieved from

Human Trafficking Laws & Regulations. (2022). U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Retrieved from

Kaylor, L. E., Winters, G. M., & Jeglic, E. L. (2022). Exploring Sexual Grooming in Female Perpetrated Child Sexual Abuse. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 31(5), 503–521.

LeNoue, S. R., Salomonsen-Sautel, S., Min, S.-J., & Thurstone, C. (2017). Marijuana commercialization and adolescent substance treatment outcomes in Colorado. The American Journal on Addictions, 26(8), 802–806.

Lwin, K., & Beltrano, N. (2022). Rethinking evidence-based and evidence-informed practice: a call for evidence-informed decision making in social work education and child welfare practice. Social Work Education, 41(2), 166–174.

MacDonell, K., Dinaj-Koci, V., Koken, J., & Naar, S. (2022). Barriers and facilitators to scaling up Healthy Choices, a motivational interviewing intervention for youth living with HIV. BMC Health Services Research, 22(1), 1098.

Mandisa, T. L. & Lanier, M. (2012). An Integrated Theoretical Framework to Describe Human Trafficking of Young Women and Girls for Involuntary Prostitution. ResearchGate. Retrieved from Integrated_Theoretical_Framework_to_Describe_Human_Trafficking_of_Young_Women_and_Girls_for_Involuntary_Prostitution.

NASW Code of Ethics.

Reardon, C. (2016, March/April). Fighting Youth Sex Trafficking — The Social Worker's Role. Social Work Today, 16(2), 10.

Saric, I. (2022, September 12). Modern slavery has risen significantly in last five years, new report says. Axios. Retrieved from

Sex Trafficking in the United States. (2019). Polaris Project. Retrieved from https://polaris

Cite this Document:

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