Sex trafficking is one of the world’s most prevalent and profitable criminal enterprises, with over 100,000 annual cases involving children under the age of 18 in the U.S. each year. However, the number of these cases are vastly under reported, especially in rural areas. A new project being undertaken by faculty members at Penn State aims to examine the incident rates and risk factors for commercial sexual exploitation of children in Pennsylvania.
According to project researcher Sheridan Miyamoto, assistant professor in the College of Nursing, the one-year project will provide evidence on the extent of commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) in the state and differences in risk factors among rural and urban victims. “There is very little research available on CSEC nationally, and even less available in rural areas, primarily because many victims are still incorrectly prosecuted for prostitution and there is no tracking system in place to help us understand how large the problem is.”
Previously, Miyamoto, who is also a co-funded faculty member of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network, received seed funding from the Social Science Research Institute to assemble an interdisciplinary research team. The team, including Sarah Font, assistant professor of sociology and fellow co-funded faculty member; and Casey Pinto, assistant professor of public health sciences in the Penn State College of Medicine, identified risk factors for CSEC, including child maltreatment, homelessness and criminal justice involvement.
According to Pinto, these risk factors may differ depending on geography. “In both rural and urban settings, victims may be forced or coerced into outdoor solicitation. In urban situations, solicitations are more likely to occur on a particular street corner, while in rural areas solicitations often occur in rest areas or truck stops on major highways.”
The research will provide the first-ever, multi-county understanding of CSEC incidence, type and factors that place youth at risk for CSEC in the state. The researchers will analyze case management data from PA Children and Youth Services from several counties. The data includes all information entered by caseworkers on what occurred or was learned over the course of an investigation through Child Protective Services.
“All cases with allegations identified as sexual exploitation or sexual abuse reported in 2015-2017 will be screened in the selected counties to identify cases that meet accepted definitions of CSEC,” Font explained. “We will be looking at children at the greatest risk, as previous studies have shown approximately 95 percent of trafficked kids have a history in the child welfare system. With this data, for the first time, we will be able to figure out how many children are at risk for sex trafficking and develop prevention efforts.”
The researchers will also compare rural and urban CSEC rates, as well as identify differences in risk factors based on rural or urban residents so that prevention efforts can be targeted. “The project is an ignition point for policy change and interventions to prevent kids from falling victim to trafficking. The end result will be a project report to help translate the science to policies and early prevention efforts,” said Miyamoto.
The project is being funded through a Center for Rural Pennsylvania grant. Seed funding was also provided by SSRI.