Identifying and Understanding Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking

Adults engage minors in sex acts through intimidation, physical and psychological coercion and preying on their need for survival. Often DMST victims are mislabeled and do not receive the services they need. Law enforcement officers can change this making...

Child prostitute implies an incorrect assumption of choice. DMST children are victims not perpetrators. Those adults who should be taking care of and keeping these children safe and the adults that pay for these children’s services are the perpetrators. When first responders misidentify sexual exploitation victims as criminals by charging them with prostitution or delinquency, they are handled through the juvenile justice system instead of receiving the services they need to help them heal from the trauma of trafficking. He or she is treated as a criminal instead of a victim. Also misidentifying the crime as sexual abuse, rape or domestic violence, a DMST victim is not given the full range of services this type of victimization needs. Lack of awareness and understanding is at fault for this misidentification, not a reflection of poor intent or services. Arresting a child victim sends a very clear message that, “You are to blame.” This is not what we truly want for these children.

Investigative Methods and Tools

Unfortunately, law enforcement officers often have a lack of innovative investigative methods and tools to uncover DMST. Law enforcement can only legally use an adult decoy allowing a buyer to argue they were not soliciting sex from a minor even if they believed the decoy was a child at the time of the solicitation. Verification of age is difficult because minors are often given fraudulent documentation by their pimps. Proper identification of a child as a minor is imperative because if the minor is mislabeled and put into the system as an adult his or her identity will be altered and subsequent identification and the charges connected to those victimizing him or her will be incorrect.

Limited Evidence 

Minors generally have very little contact with the buyer and even less knowledge of the buyers’ real name or address. Also, unlike child pornography that often has a financial trail, those who participate in exploiting a child through prostitution most frequently do so on a cash basis.

Working together

Local, state and federal law enforcement need to work together particularly in the area of DMST. Because many traffickers travel from place to place to meet demand and to keep the minors from being identified, communication between jurisdictions is necessary. Updating and utilizing federal databases is imperative. Training together on the laws, tools and techniques can improve every agency’s ability to recognize and assist victims, as well as, hold accountable traffickers and buyers. Another element in working together is for local officers to charge those involved in DMST under federal statutes versus local or state statutes with lower penalties.

Points for Officers

  • Buyers can be anyone making it hard to distinguish them from law-abiding community members. Research shows this industry is not driven by tourism. Locals purchase sex along with those just passing through.
  • Sellers can by anyone as well. They could be pimps, boyfriends or family members. Many disturbing stories include the selling of daughters by their mothers.
  • Understand the Power and Control wheel and trauma bonds. Victims have been psychologically-altered by their traffickers often for years.
  • Incorporate investigative questions that seek out the true nature of the crime. Use victim-centered questioning techniques.
  • Build trust and rapport. Keep in mind that victims are often conditioned by their traffickers not to trust law enforcement.
  • Place a high priority on safety. A victim often risks physical harm or even death for talking to officers.
  • Know local and national resources including protective facilities that understand and treat DMST victims.

Research has shown that DMST is far more pervasive than experts expected. It is often misidentified and victims mislabeled and charged as criminals. Fortunately, many organizations including Share Hope International have begun training law enforcement, justice and child welfare professionals on what DMST is, what to look for and how to protect and prevent minors coerced into this traumatizing lifestyle. If professionals continue to work together, increase awareness and arrest and prosecute the correct criminals in these cases, the traffickers and the buyers, we can change this too-often hidden crime and protect our nation’s children.


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