On January 18th, 2023, the Children’s Bureau Learning and Coordination Center (CBLCC) hosted a national webinar with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) focused upon child trafficking. Featuring NCMEC Executive Director, Melissa Snow, the digital dialogue specifically focused upon understanding the types of child sex trafficking (CST), shifting the language and perspective surrounding it, and providing appropriate resources and services. Snow ultimately pointed to a trauma-informed and youth-centered recovery approach that can have a powerful impact on the prevention and response to those missing in care.

According to NCMEC, of the 25,000 children reported missing on their hotline in 2021, 1 of 6 were likely sex trafficking victims. The experiences of many children in foster care align heavily with high-risk attributes of trafficking; put simply, the foster care to trafficking pipeline is a growing conduit of vulnerabilities due to the lack of safety and security that those in care often experience. While pimp or gang-controlled trafficking are more commonly known types of CST, it is important to understand that trafficking can also be familial or buyer perpetrated (a buyer is exploiting a child’s lack of food, shelter, or money). Sexual exploitation can happen without a child ever leaving home. This helps shift one’s perspective of trafficking from that of “movement” to purely the victimization of the child.

NCMEC is diligently working to change the narrative of young people who are leaving home or placements. Snow shared that in most cases of trafficking, it is often the child running from something unsafe due to an unmet need or a trauma response. NCMEC’s strategy has thus been centered upon this theme: “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower” (Alexander Den Heijer). Within this analogy, Snow explained, the greatest vulnerability for youth is the misunderstanding in how both people and policies respond to them running. Blame often falls upon the youth in a punitive way. Such a rapid run and return cycle can be quite frustrating for workers, but true change can only occur by homing in on what is driving behavior in the first place.

Ultimately, NCMEC is a key organization in fighting to protect children and creating vital resources for them. NCMEC’s services include a 24/7 hotline, assistance to guardians and law enforcement, and professional training and resources. The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (P.L. 113-183) of 2014 has rendered a key role in their efforts, since it requires state agencies to report missing children from care to NCMEC. Ultimately, NCMEC is seeking partnership with child welfare agencies and social workers to weave the largest safety net possible for children, which includes housing, food, medical care, connection, and empowerment. By holding in tandem these tangible and intangible resources, together we can all seek a future where safety is met for every single child.

By Erin Weiss, Policy Intern