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Risk Factors, Protective Factors, and Preventing Human Trafficking

January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Since the first Presidential Proclamation designating the month, there have been great strides in public awareness on this issue. As such, the Center for Combating Human Trafficking (CCHT) offers opportunities for education on how to best prevent and respond to instance of trafficking. In light of this month of awareness, let’s take a moment to focus specifically on prevention. 

To prevent trafficking, we must first have a shared understanding of language and definition. Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE) is one form of human trafficking. It involves the exchange of sex for anything of value. This crime occurs in strip clubs, adult films, escort services, hotels, and on the streets of our communities. However, to fully understand CSE, we must take step back. 

At CCHT, we describe CSE and human trafficking as part of a larger continuum of violence. This continuum includes forms of interpersonal violence such as childhood abuse, neglect or sexual abuse; domestic violence, sexual assault, exploitation, and trafficking. We describe CSE in this way because, in general, the risk and protective factors for these forms of violence are similar. Research also shows that when a person experiences childhood abuse or domestic violence, they are at an increased risk for sexual assault and/or CSE. These forms of violence are rooted in the exploitation of vulnerabilities for the abuser/batterer/exploiter to have power and control. 

With this expanded view of CSE, the goal of CCHT’s work is to end abuse, exploitation, and trafficking of individuals. Working toward this goal, a focus on prevention seems most appropriate. Effective prevention, such as that illuminated in our Lotus Anti-Trafficking ModelTM Prevention for ProsperityTM programming, is grounded in research and involves decreasing risk while increasing protection. A list of research-identified risk and protective factors for abuse, exploitation, and trafficking are listed below.

Risk Factors

Protective Factors

Age – Youth are most at risk

Previous Experiences of Abuse

Poverty

Addiction (self or in the home)

Developmental Disabilities

Mental Health issues (self or in the home)

System-involved

Being Runaway or Homeless

Identifying as LGBTQ

Self-Care

 Self-Regulation

Self-Efficacy

Having a Mentor

Stable Housing

Connected to a Community

Faith/Spirituality

Vision/Goals for the Future

Ability to Recognize Healthy/Unhealthy Situations

Survival Skills

With these risk and protective factors in mind, the impact of relationships with healthy and safe adults cannot be overstated. Abusers and traffickers commonly pretend to care in order to groom or recruit vulnerable youth. Youth are less likely to fall prey to these tactics when they have caring adults around them. They are less likely to seek attention or affection from adults/youth they don’t know. A formal mentoring relationship offers additional protection. Mentors not only provide needed attention and care, they also invest in their mentees bio-psych-social-and spiritual development. Mentoring programs help youth develop critical skills such as self-regulation, self-care, and planning for the future. As a result of their involvement in these programs, youth create a vision for the future that might not have seemed possible before. 

In partnership with our friends at MANY, we are proud to be training and technical assistance providers for the Mentoring for Child Victims of CSE grants through the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). These grantee programs work directly with vulnerable and survivor youth to prevent and/or respond to CSE in their community. During this month of awareness, we want to celebrate the dedicated mentors who are working to help end abuse, exploitation and trafficking, as well as the agencies across the country who understand the importance of these and other prevention oriented programs. The impact of their work will take time to reveal itself, but their investments of time, talent, and treasure are sure to move us forward in the anti-trafficking movement. 


Dr. Karen Countryman-Roswurm is a licensed master social work and a doctor of psychology with more than two decades of personal, professional practice, and community-based research expertise in the anti-trafficking movement. With various first-hand vantage points, and operating from a strengths-based and social justice perspective, she has served locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally as a street outreach worker, direct-service program coordinator, therapist, community response organizer, human rights advocate, researcher, educator, and public policy developer. Dr. Countryman-Roswurm serves as the Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Combating Human Trafficking and is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at Wichita State University.

Allison Farres is a Master’s level social worker and serves as the Strategic Programming and Evaluation Specialist at the Center for Combating Human Trafficking (CCHT). Allison’s primary focus is working with survivors of abuse and exploitation through the Pathway to Prosperity™ program and evaluating the effectiveness of CCHT programming. Allison has been involved in anti-trafficking work at CCHT since 2015.