The NCA Monday morning message from the CEO, Teresa Huizar, often highlights an article or paper on a pertinent topic.

This week Teresa provided the following summary on the topic of prosecuting sex trafficking, highlighting a paper from USC Law School entitled: “Successful criminal prosecutions of sex trafficking and sexual abuse of minors: A comparative analysis.” If you want to go straight to the paper, it’s available here:

This morning, I want to focus your attention on sex trafficking cases involving adolescent youth. Twenty-three years ago, the United States passed its first major piece of legislation in the fight against human trafficking—the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA). Since that time, we have learned a great deal about trafficking, its perpetrators, and its victims, and particularly about commercial sexual exploitation of minors. But what we have also learned is that these cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute, made all the more so when they involve adolescent victims.
There are a multitude of reasons why these cases are difficult to prosecute—and we are familiar with many of them because of the similarity to child sexual abuse (CSA) cases and the difficulties we face in prosecuting those cases as well. But what makes for a successful prosecution of a trafficking case involving adolescent victims? How can we build on those successes? And how are these cases similar to or different from successful prosecutions of child sexual abuse cases involving adolescent victims? These are the questions that researchers asked in a new paper published by the University of Southern California Law titled “Successful criminal prosecutions of sex trafficking and sexual abuse of minors: A comparative analysis.”[1]
The researchers decided that the analysis of successful prosecutions should involve both trafficking and CSA cases, because the victims in both kinds of cases share many characteristics—for example, “sizeable numbers of both types of victims have histories of adversity and trauma exposure.” Id., p. 4. Moreover, “[s]uch histories, among both types of victimized youth, have implications for their potential cooperativeness and participation in prosecutions. Prior maltreatment and dependency court involvement, for instance, contribute to general feelings of mistrust of social services, the courts, and law enforcement.” Id., p. 5. And both may have engaged in delinquent behavior—but the difference is that, with trafficked youth, the delinquent behavior may be an integral part of their trafficking, whereas in CSA cases, the delinquent behavior “generally occurs after the abuse and is believed to be a consequence of the victimization.” Id., p. 6.
Finally, the person or persons perpetrating the trafficking or CSA may use similar tactics on their victims, including manipulation, coercion, and grooming. But, as the researchers note, “[t]o date, relatively little attention has been paid in legal research to potential links among manipulation tactics used by traffickers and CSA perpetrators in cases involving adolescent victims, victim behavior, and prosecutorial decisions.” Id. The authors were curious to see what importance prosecutors place on the use of these tactics in each type of case, and whether it had any bearing on victim cooperativeness, or the portrayal of such.
The researchers also wanted to look at the ways in which CSA and trafficking victims differ from each other. One of those ways is disclosure patterns—whereas most adolescent CSA victims disclose on their own, that is not the case for trafficking victims. Often, they are identified as victims by law enforcement, and in circumstances involving a sting or a raid, where disclosure of trafficking is not voluntary.
To conduct the analysis, the researchers used appellate court opinions rather than examine trial court transcripts of cases, which is both expensive and time-consuming. Appellate court opinions “contain descriptions of key elements of the trial that are considered important for understanding the case history, progression, and decision. By analyzing these descriptions, we were able to gain unique insight into the most salient components of two types of poorly understood cases: those involving charges of trafficking and those involving charges of sexual abuse of adolescent victims.” Id., p. 11. The final sample included 99 cases—41 trafficking cases and 58 CSA cases.
In analyzing the data, they found three key themes. First, regarding the victim’s level of cooperation, they found that a greater number of trafficking cases made explicit comments about the victim being uncooperative—but those same cases also noted points of cooperation. These were cases, after all, that were successfully prosecuted, so that should not come as a great surprise. What was more intriguing to the researchers was that the level of cooperation was closely related to the way in which the victimization was discovered. Even though the adolescent sexual abuse victims often delayed disclosing the abuse, they had clearly thought through the consequences of disclosing, felt ready to do so, and maintained consistency—and this translated into “appearing more cooperative with the authorities.” Id., p. 24. By comparison, the prosecutors in trafficking cases relied on “victims’ testimony from preliminary hearings or from a hearsay witness” from the outset of the trial, and often expressed concern that the trafficking victims would fail to appear for key moments of the trial process, which was interpreted as an unwillingness to cooperate—irrespective of whether the victim did appear or not. Id.
The second theme they identified relates to the characterization of the victims—trafficking victims, as opposed to the CSA victims, were frequently portrayed as “troubled and problematic. Trafficking victims’ histories of delinquent, criminal, and deceptive behaviors were frequently mentioned.” Id., p. 26. But the relevance of these details to the charges against the defendants was unclear, and “the tendency to label trafficking victims as delinquent youth, which potentially increases the amount of blame placed on them for their victimization, seems pervasive.” Id.
Finally, the third theme involved the “range of manipulative strategies employed by traffickers and CSA perpetrators to induce compliance.” Id., p. 27. In trafficking cases, manipulation strategies involving violence, coercion, and isolation were mentioned. In the CSA cases, by contrast, seduction-focused tactics were more frequently mentioned. But the researchers found that, in fact, the manipulation tactics used were quite similar in both types of cases, so the choice to emphasize one type in trafficking cases and another in CSA cases may not be as clear-cut as it is portrayed to be. The researchers posit that “[t]his may suggest that adults who exploit youth employ manipulation tactics that target developmental vulnerabilities rather than employing crime-specific tactics.” Id.
What does all of this mean for us as Children’s Advocacy Centers and for our prosecuting attorney partners? Trafficking cases and CSA cases are distinct from one another in significant ways, which the researchers acknowledge: “Striking differences in the characteristics of victims, defendants, and the cases themselves reveal the need for specialized and unique training for prosecutors working on the two types of cases.” Id., p. 29. Nevertheless, there is sufficient overlap that prosecutors may be able to apply strategies that are successful in CSA cases to trafficking cases. With this in mind, I encourage you to download this study in full and share it with your colleagues and team members, particularly your partners in prosecuting attorneys’ offices. The greater our understanding of both trafficking and CSA cases, the more we can do to bring these victims a measure of justice.