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Identifying and Understanding Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking

Law enforcement officers come into contact with things that may not be what they seem. On the streets and behind the detective’s desk, officers sort through facts and fiction trying to determine the exact nature of an event and human behaviors and acts. With the right awareness and training, law enforcement officers can see through the murkiest of waters. Domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) is one area where law enforcement professions need to start clearing the water.

DMST is the commercial exploitation of American children within U.S. borders. Often this crime adorns itself in other criminal clothing such as prostitution, juvenile delinquency or sexual abuse of a minor. Many times the child is charged with a criminal offense instead of being identified as a victim. Along with this criminalization, the trafficker and the buyer often go undiscovered and uncharged. DMST is defined as the “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act” where the person is less than 18 years old. The age of the child is the identifying element of DMST.

Cultural Glorification of Underage Sexuality

Vitality, innocence and vulnerability are what make minors enticing to certain factions of the population. In DMST, children are psychologically and physically groomed by their slave masters. Victims are isolated, physically and sexually abused, deprived of food and sleep, manipulated and intimidated. Essentially they are coerced by adults to perform sex acts for adults. This process is called “seasoning”. This term, many others, and guidelines to trafficking sex can be found in books purchased on common sites such as Amazon. The glorification of the pimp culture has caused many people to be apathetic to the term and the environment allowing those who actually sell children for a living to do so with an apathetic public. Often minors are groomed into a life of drugs. Once they are addicted, they can be sold to feed their addiction. 


Share Hope International estimates that anywhere between 100,000 to 300,000 minors are victimized through prostitution in America every year. The average age when a child enters into DMST is 13 years old. Most first responders state 15 years old is the average age of the minors they come into contact with but the victims state they have been prostituted for several years by the time they come into the juvenile justice or social service system. Healing Places Church in Baton Rouge reported the youngest child they have come into contact with was 8 years old. It’s difficult to compile statistics because of the disparity in reporting criteria and the underground nature of DMST. The internet has allowed DMST to expand and reach more buyers less conspicuously. It has also allowed those who want to engage in sex with minors to find like minded individuals and groups.

Money or Survival

Many DMST victims earn money for their pimp/trafficker or “boyfriend”. Often taxi drivers and other adults buy into the trafficking by transporting buyers to where the minors are in return for getting a cut of the profits. Another common situation is when minors sell sex acts to meet their needs for survival, such as food, clothing, shelter or protection. Run-away and homeless youth are particularly at risk for this type of victimization. Although some would argue there is a mutual benefit they couldn’t be more wrong. When an adult exercises controls over a vulnerable child it is a crime and the child is a victim not a willing participant.

Law Enforcement Issues

Once law enforcement officers realize that DMST is more than simple prostitution or sexual abuse of a child, professionals can make a bigger impact on identifying victims and holding adult participants accountable. There are several key areas where officers can begin to make a difference.

Proper Identification

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.