Child Exploitation as a Form of Human Trafficking


Introduction and Overview

Human trafficking is a modern concern in sociology and social work. Many individuals are affected by the problem. However, the groups that are mostly affected include women and children. Many theories exist as to why they are affected, including the perception that they are the weakest members of society.

Global organizations have attempted to provide solutions to the problem of human trafficking in general. Nevertheless, the measures put in place seem less effective (Rafferty, 2008). The most common definition of human trafficking was made by the United Nations’ Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons.

The UN (2000) reveals that this protocol defines human trafficking as, “The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by means of the threat, force, or other forms of coercion to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person for the purpose of exploitation” (p. 4).

The prevalence of child exploitation with reference to human trafficking is high in third world countries where children are sold to be modern slaves in developed nations. This situation is a cause of concern in the practice of social work based on the many negative effects of child trafficking. Rafferty (2008) reveals how “children are routinely sold like commodities in a multibillion-dollar industry that operates with near impunity” (p. 13).

Affected children often have physical and mental manifestations of the effects of the practice. Some of them include sleeping disorders, acquisition of sexually transmitted diseases, anxiety, guilt, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among others (Briere & Spinazolla, 2005; Rafferty, 2008, p. 13).

This paper is a qualitative review of the problem of child trafficking. It examines the background of the problem, provides a literature review, and an analysis of the theories, policies, and interventions that are in place to address the vice.


Human kidnapping, and infant kidnapping, in particular, has emerged as a contemporary type of captivity. Many children have fallen victims. The practice has its roots in slavery, where individuals were sold from their native lands to different parts of the world to work in farms and industries.

The end of slavery in the 19th century and the creation of laws to curb the act meant that individuals had to use different ways of delivering labor that was in high demand in the rapidly developing economies of the world. According to Briere and Spinazolla (2005), this situation led to the emergence of human trafficking, which targeted the weak members of society, such as the poor, the female sex, and children.

The practice is still rampant. Traffickers often trick vulnerable individuals by promising them a better life in the new areas. Instead, they offer them as slaves to the ready clients. Children have specifically fallen victims because of their vulnerable nature (Bergeron, 2010).

The major social concerns that are associated with child trafficking include the use of trafficked children as commercial sex workers. Rafferty (2008) asserts, “Two million girls of ages 5–15 are initiated into the commercial sex industry each year” (p. 13).

Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE) is a cause for concern to the professionals working in this field. Many health issues have been associated with child trafficking. The practice leads to the evolution of child slaves in the developed nations. Child trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry (Rafferty, 2008). This article uses children as the target population, with an area of focus being the United States.

The US is among the states that are affected by child trafficking. Thousands of children are imported into the country as commercial products to serve the interests of their masters. The emergence of the social problem has led to the development of laws and other measures to control the practice (Rafferty, 2008). However, attention focuses on whether the laws are effective.

Before 2000, there was no law that was meant to protect the victims of child trafficking. Offenders often went unpunished. Pressure from the different state organs, non-governmental organizations, and the international bodies led to the enactment of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000 (United States Department of Health and Human Services, 2009).

The legislation was meant to curb the practice of human trafficking in the country, prevent the import of victims, prosecute the offenders, and to rehabilitate the trafficked individuals in the US. The multicultural practice issues that should be considered in this analysis include the differences in the living standards of individuals in different parts of the world (Rafferty, 2008).

It is also important to consider the existing legislation in areas where children are imported. The issue of racism is also an important multicultural issue in relation to child trafficking.

Literature Review

Many researchers have provided statistics on the prevalence of the problem of child trafficking globally. The global bodies that are responsible for the prevention of global problems such as the United Nations have also published special papers that are aimed at defining the practice of human trafficking in an effort to provide solutions to the problems (Bergeron, 2010).

Many independent researchers, scholars, and analysts have also contributed to the provision of the solution to the problems in the form of journal articles, which comprise some of the literature materials that are available for review in this article. The primary focus will be made on the prevalence of the problem in the United States and the research findings in this area.

Most of the scholars that contribute to the analysis of child trafficking are mainly social work professionals, with others being from other supporting disciplines such as psychology, international law, human rights, and policymakers, among others. Several students in these disciplines have also contributed to the topic in the form of theses, which are important in the analysis of the problem and its scope.

These researchers and scholars describe the issue of child trafficking as a form of exploitation in different ways (Bergeron, 2010). Some of them claim that the existing differences on the global scale are responsible for the practice while others focus on domestic problems. The views of these researchers will be discussed in this section.

Trafficking Children

Different ways are used to lure children into the chain of human trafficking, with most of these ways exploiting the innocence and vulnerability of this population. Traffickers use techniques that are aimed at generating trust between them and the prospective children. The final relationship leads to exposure of children to the market.

The United States Department of Health and Human Services (2009) confirms that most of the traffickers use tricky means of assuring kids first-class employment and a healthier time in a new area where they are to be trafficked. Child traffickers are sensitive to the needs of the children at first.

They pretend to offer parental and other forms of relationship to the children. According to Bergeron (2010), “Bus stations, parties, the mall, the movies, the street, groups homes, jail, and even inside and outside of schools are some of the places where pimps try to traffic young girls” (p. 8).

The main reason why children are trafficked is to offer sexual services in the new area to which they are trafficked (Rafferty, 2008). Traffickers may even convince children to run away voluntarily from home in the hope of finding greener pastures. In one of the studies done in 1999 in the United States, over 1.5 million children had run away from home (Flores, 2002).

According to the Flores (2002), a significant proportion of the kids that escape during this period was also actively involved in the use of drugs or was involved in one or more forms of sexual or corporeal mistreatment. Teens’ lack of proper information puts them at risk of giving in for prostitution after being lured into doing so.

Children are also easy prey for pimps because they have poor decision-making and perceptions of life and the future (Bergeron, 2010). Traffickers and pimps frequent the social places that the teenage children often visit with the aim of luring them into the practice (Bergeron, 2010).

Other areas that are known to be frequented by these individuals in search of their prey include movies, parties, jails, schools, bus stations, and streets. Some of the trafficked children are also used to lure new children into the chain by befriending them and giving them presents with the intention of leading them to their eventual fate (Bergeron, 2010).

The abuse of trafficked children is often unreported and unpunished in many parts of the world, with the victims being punished unfairly by the law (Rafferty, 2008). According to Yvonne Rafferty (2008), authorities punish the trafficked children because of illegal border crossings, undocumented immigration, and prostitution crimes.

Impacts of Child Trafficking

Most of the tactics employed by child traffickers to prevent their victims from deserting them are the most harmful to the children. The methods used to retain the victims under the grip of the offenders include the destruction of the physical and psychological defenses of the victims (Rafferty, 2008).

The methods that the traffickers use to achieve this goal include the application of psychological, sexual, and physical violence against their victims (Rafferty, 2008).

Others also employ the tactics of isolation, induction, and maintenance of drug dependence denial of (or controlled access to) basic services and needs such as food and monitoring using dogs, cameras, and weapons (Rafferty, 2008). These techniques affect children bodily and emotionally. They are the cause of concern for social workers.

Abductors often mistreat children who fall in their hands. Customers and the pimps that the children work for often beat them. A major outcome from the mistreatment of the trafficked children is poor development, with the emotional, physical, and mental stress that they are subjected to, causing developmental abnormalities (Bertone, 2000).

Studies on the trafficking of children indicate that Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE) is the biggest cause of problems associated with child trafficking.

According to Bottoms and Quas (2006), children that are maltreated during trafficking and the eventual settlement in the areas where they are sold often have maladaptive psychological and physical outcomes. Trafficked children often have deprivation of services such as education, healthcare, and other social services that their age group has the right to enjoy (Rafferty, 2008).

Education Deprivation

Most of the trafficked children have no access to education services. They are denied the few educational opportunities that are available for their group. According to Rafferty (2008), the result of this act is further worsening of the economic conditions of the children and the societies from where they come.

Many researchers state that depriving education to the child victims of human trafficking ensures that they depend on their masters even in their adulthood since their economic status changes after the induction into prostitution and other illegal activities.

For the victims of trafficking who manage to go to school after the trafficking, they often have challenges with new experiences. Some of the researchers that have followed the children indicate that they often have difficulties in the development of cognitive skills, motor and verbal skills, and performance in the learning institutions (Eckenrode, Laird & Doris, 1993).

These children also demonstrate delays in many fields of academics, with some even opting to quit school to join illegal activities. The apparent lack of education for children is a social work challenge. The resulting problems also pose a challenge to social workers.

Physical and Emotional Problems

Social workers often have to deal with the problems stemming from child trafficking, including physical and emotional health problems. The methods used to traffic the children are inhumane. Numerous fatalities are reported because of these practices. The areas where trafficked children live are also unhygienic. They can result in diseases and other health concerns.

Poor hygiene and unfavorable diet for child trafficking victims often result in poor health. The problems are compounded by the inability of the traffickers to offer health services to their victims. According to Rafferty (2008), child traffickers often deny their victims the right to seek healthcare, and hence the prevalent health problems for the children whose cry has been a social issue that social workers are concerned with.

The exposure of trafficked children to practices such as prostitution and drug abuse predisposes them to health problems such as STDs and addiction. These children engage in unsafe sexual practices, unsafe abortions, high-risk pregnancies, and unwanted pregnancies (Rafferty, 2008).

Rafferty (2008) observes that HIV/AIDS is prevalent in trafficked children as another challenge for social workers who have to search the affected children and screen them for these diseases against their will for fear of facing repercussions from traffickers.

The emotional problems that the children often face while in the hands of the traffickers prohibit them from seeking support and/or help from the relevant authorities. Rafferty (2008) says that these children have emotional challenges that can be permanent if not tackled early.

The physical and emotional trauma originates in part from the traumatic removal of the children from their parents and families (Rafferty, 2008). Some of the emotional effects of trafficking that have been described in the literature include depression, guilt, shame, low self-esteem, hopelessness, nightmares, anxiety, and predisposition to psychiatric illness (Rafferty, 2008).

Sneddon (2003) confirms that the psychological effects of child trafficking stem from victims witnessing other victims being abused in the form of threats and isolation. Children who experience emotional and sexual abuse in the hands of their traffickers, and clients are more likely to suffer from emotional problems as compared to their counterparts (Rafferty, 2008).

These health effects of child trafficking are important to the practice of social work. Social workers have the mandate to detect the existence of trafficked children in the society. Social workers also need to offer basic services to children and extract them from human traffickers.

These individuals also need to report cases of child trafficking in the society to the relevant authorities. Few readings describe the relationship between child trafficking and its connotation to collective vocation. However, the available researches provide important information regarding the same issue.

Theoretical Framework

Rafferty (2008) says, “Although researchers have identified several factors that place children at risk for child trafficking, they are often merely listed with no theoretical framework to guide research” (p. 13). An important hypothetical structure that may prove useful in the evaluation of child trafficking resulting in child exploitation is the ecological perspective (Bronfenbrenner, 1986).

According to Rafferty (2008), this theory “is a possible framework to conceptualize risk factors associated with child trafficking because it emphasizes the relationship between people and their environment, rather than examining the characteristics of either in isolation” (p. 14).

The application of the environmental standpoint structure entails discussing the environmental circumstances that result in teen trafficking. Some of the risk factors that are important to consider in this framework include family risk factors. Rafferty (2008) confirms that the risk factors in families that may result in child trafficking include poor treatment and the prevalence of poverty.

Children who are usually trafficked are usually female because they are more vulnerable. They have the potential to be used as prostitutes. Other findings that are consistent with this theory include that the victims of trafficking are the ethnic minorities in the societies, with the reason behind this observation being their inability to cater for themselves and the family institution (Rafferty, 2008).

The age that is prone to trafficking is between 12 and 16 years. It is the most vulnerable because of the adventurous capacities depicted by individuals within the age brackets. The socially isolated groups are also vulnerable, just like the marginalized social groupings that often face the challenge of inadequate resources (Rafferty, 2008).

These groups are easier to convince and lure into the practice with the promise of improvements in their social standings. The characteristics of societies such as social isolation, economic inequality, and discrimination are some of the other factors leading to child trafficking (Rafferty, 2008).

These factors are consistent with the theory. The gender factors in the society, such as the discrimination against the female sex, also result in the observed prevalence of child trafficking, especially when it affects the female sex (Rafferty, 2008). Some attitudes held by society are also fuelling the prevalence of child trafficking.

According to Rafferty (2008), some societies believe that the practice of sexual intercourse with a virgin may be a cure for HIV/AIDS, and hence the high demand for children as sex slaves in these parts of the world.

Some of the other theories that are important in the analysis of the challenge of child trafficking and the prevalence of child exploitation include the complex trauma theory and developmental speculation (Bergeron, 2010). These theories are useful in the understanding of the effects of trafficking on children. The complex trauma theory states that child treatment is a form of trauma to the children.

It results in the effects that are stated earlier. Children who are exposed to poor conditions during transit, after the sale to the clients and other activities, are prone to traumatic experiences during their later life — trauma results in expressions such as physical, mental, and psychological illness.

These theories are important in the understanding of the practice of child trafficking as a problem in social work. They help understand the reasons behind the presence of child trafficking and the effects that are felt from the practice.

The ecological perspective framework is important in social work in relation to child trafficking since it allows the concerned parties to understand the reasons behind the prevalence of the practice, as stated above. The theories that are later discussed, including the complex trauma theory, are also important since they contribute to the understanding of the effects of child trafficking in the social work perspective.


Child trafficking is a problem that is recognized by national, regional, and global bodies. Some international and federal laws are meant to prevent the practice and/or deal with the offenders. These policies are also meant to rehabilitate children who are engaged in the practice besides protecting them from the effects of the practice.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in the United States is the main policy that deals with the protection of children from human trafficking, the punishment of the offenders, and the reintroduction of victims to the society.

Federal authorities have been able to use this legislation effectively to curb the practice of human trafficking. There have been reductions in the number of victims. However, children are more affected because they are easy to trick and/or are undetected by most authorities. They are also dependent on their traffickers. The threats keep them in the organizations since they are unable to exist on their own.

TVPA has provisions that enable victims to be funded by the federal government with the provision of benefits and other services that are important to their survival in the country.

Another component of the legislation is T Visa, where the children victims of trafficking, along with their adult counterparts, are eligible for a form of work authorization where they get to work in the country (United States Department of Health and Human Services, 2009).

The other program that is relevant to child trafficking and social work is the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) program that is administered by the US Department of Human and Health Services (HHS) (United States Department of Health and Human Services, 2009).

Children under these programs have access to a number of services that are provided in areas that are favorable for recovery. Some of the other services that are provided under the program include intensive case management, healthcare, counseling, training, and other social services that the children were deprived of in the custody of their traffickers (United States Department of Health and Human Services, 2009).

URM serves as the main authority in charge of children victims of trafficking who may not have knowledge of their parents. For those that have families, the program is also involved in the reunification of children with their families in different parts of the country with the available repatriation services reuniting them with their parents in other parts of the world.

This policy, along with the relevant international policies on human trafficking and child trafficking is important in social work because they guide the interaction between the social worker, the trafficked children, their traffickers, and the relevant authorities. Social workers have to contact the relevant authorities in their attempt to offer the solution to the child victims of human trafficking.

Interventions and Recommendations

Many laws have been created internationally to deal with the problem of child trafficking and human trafficking in general. The United Nations is one of the organizations that lead in the protection of the rights of children by formulating many policies for member countries that are aimed at stemming the practice.

The organization has departments that are dedicated to the counter of child trafficking. Some punishments are instituted to member states that do not put measures in place. The protection of human rights is a major role of the UN. It funds projects in nations that are prone to human trafficking.

The World Health Organization is another body that has put in place measures to deal with the effects of child trafficking. Policies have been formulated on how social work departments in different nations should engage in the protection of children from trafficking. These policies have demonstrated significant results. Some of the countries that are still largely affected include China, Mexico, and Ethiopia.

These countries serve as the origin for the trafficked children, with the markets being the developed nations in continents such as Europe and North America. Border control is another method that has been used in the US to prevent the problem of human trafficking. The arrested people are subjected to stringent measures to dissuade other individuals.

In the recent past, international transport has grown at a very fast rate because of the efficient methods of transport that are in use. These methods have led to the high prevalence of human trafficking in part. Measures that have been put in place include travel regulations for some areas.

Passengers are screened at the major entry points in the nations to detect any potential form of human trafficking. The use of technology to monitor activities of human traffickers has also gathered pace, with the US leading in the deployment of special technology to thwart any attempted human trafficking. These measures have not been useful in reducing the occurrences of human trafficking, especially child trafficking.

Some of the reasons why the measures put in place have not been effective in reducing child trafficking include the ability of traffickers to escape traps and the cooperation of the victims with the traffickers. Most of the victims are unaware of the fate that they are likely to have in the new ‘greener pastures.’

They often cooperate with traffickers who habitually use legal means of getting the victims to a new country. Therefore, the authorities have a hard time trying to detect human traffickers and their victims. They only find out after a long time in their stay. This illegal trade has also fueled the corresponding drug trade in the US and the origin countries and the practice of underage sex. Gangs also guard child trafficking in some areas.

More effort should be put to punish the offenders of child trafficking, including the institution of laws that are aimed at punishing them. These laws are not effective if the prospective victims are vulnerable. Social workers should be involved in empowering the vulnerable population.

There is also a need to educate the population on the risks that it may face when engaging in the practice of child trafficking. Provision basic education will also be important in reducing the prevalence of child trafficking.

The other important intervention that should be adopted includes the provision of employment for vulnerable populations and early detection of the victims of child trafficking. Child trafficking remains a significant social problem. Social work is one of the disciplines that may be used to address it.


This article looks at the prevalence of child trafficking, the background, and the available interventions together with how they work. Social work is established as one of the areas that may be important in solving the problem that has persisted despite the formulation of policies to curb it.

Therefore, from a closer look at the expositions made in the article, the analyzed literature shows that child trafficking results from existing environmental and social concerns, which should form the main areas of focus for social workers. There is a need to carry out education for the affected groups in an effort to offer basic services to the societies with the highest risk.

There is a need for families to show concern on the whereabouts of children since they (children) need to be controlled and directed towards doing what is in line with societal norms.

This effort follows the fact the children are very valuable and that they hold the future of any country. Anything that hinders them from achieving their goals in life, such as trafficking or any mode of abuse needs to be addressed, with stern actions being taken against the offenders.

Reference List

Bergeron, B. (2010). An Assessment of Social Worker Attitudes Regarding the Domestic Sex Trafficking of Children in America. Social Work Theses. Paper 57. London: Routlege.

Bertone, M. (2000). Sexual trafficking in women: International political economy and the politics of sex. Gender Issues, 18(1), 4–22.

Bottoms, B., & Quas, J. (2006). Recent advances and new challenges in child maltreatment research, practices, and policy: Previewing the issues. Journal of Social Issues, 62(1), 653–662.

Briere, J., & Spinazolla, J. (2005).Phenomenology and psychological assessment of complex posttraumatic states. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 18(1), 401–412.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1986). Ecology of the family as a context for human development: Research perspectives. Developmental Psychology, 22(1), 723–742.

Eckenrode, J., Laird, M., & Doris, J. (1993).School performance and disciplinary problems among abused and neglected children. Developmental Psychology, 29(3), 53–62.

Flores, R. (2002). .

Rafferty, Y. (2008). The Impact of Trafficking on Children: Psychological and Social Policy Perspectives. Child Development Perspectives, 2(1), 13-18.

Sneddon, H. (2003). The effects of maltreatment on children’s health and well-being. Child Care in Practice, 9(1), 236–250.

UN. (2000). Protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children, supplementing the United Nations convention against transnational organized crime. New York, NY, United Nations General Assembly.

United States Department of Health and Human Services. (2009). Factsheet: Child victims of human trafficking. 

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