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Spring 2014 Vol. 13 Number 2

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Protecting Our Nation's Youth

Reports Highlight Need for Stronger Efforts to Prevent Abuse & Sex Trafficking of Minors

Commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors are grave problems in the U.S., though this may not be generally known because such crimes are apt to happen at the margins of society and behind closed doors. Crimes can range from prostituting a child, recruiting or transporting minors for the purpose of sexual exploitation, or exploitation through survival sex -- the exchange of sexual acts for a necessity, such as shelter or food -- among other offenses.

A recent report from the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council says minors who are prostituted or sexually exploited should be recognized and treated as victims rather than arrested and prosecuted as criminals, as they currently are in most states. National, state, local, tribal, and territorial jurisdictions should develop laws that redirect young victims and survivors of commercial sexual exploitation from the criminal justice or juvenile justice systems toward support services.

Current prevention efforts are scarce, and efforts that exist are generally insufficient and uncoordinated, according to the report. Professionals who interact with minors -- such as teachers, health care providers, and members of law enforcement -- often aren't aware that trafficking and exploitation are happening in their communities and lack the expertise to identify and respond to at-risk youth. The report calls for the U.S. departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, and Education to support nationwide efforts to raise awareness of these crimes by providing training for professionals who routinely interact with minors and through public awareness campaigns geared toward children and adolescents. And because those who sexually exploit minors by and large are not held accountable for their actions, all jurisdictions should review and strengthen laws against exploiters, traffickers, and solicitors.

Another recent report by the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council takes a look at child abuse more broadly, highlighting the need for research to fill gaps in understanding child abuse and neglect. According to the report, rates of physical and sexual abuse of children have declined during the past 20 years, although rates of neglect have not, for reasons not fully understood. Based on the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, about three-quarters of reported cases in 2011 were classified as neglect, about 15 percent as physical abuse, and about 10 percent as sexual abuse.

Ascertaining more accurate numbers has several challenges, including the existence of different definitions of abuse and neglect among the entities that collect information, various legal definitions across states, and diverse research standards for determining incidence and prevalence rates. All of these uncertainties impede understanding of the problem's causes and consequences, as well as effective prevention and treatment, the report concludes. The financial effects of this problem on society as a whole are evident, however: Each year, cases of child abuse or neglect impose a cumulative cost to society of $80.3 billion.

The report calls for a national strategy to advance research on child abuse and neglect in the following areas, among others: why children have different sensitivity to abuse of similar severity, why some child victims respond to treatment and others do not, and how different types of abuse impact a child's developmental trajectory. In addition, a national surveillance system should be created to improve accuracy in identifying cases of child abuse and neglect.

-- Dana Korsen & Jennifer Walsh

Confronting Commercial Sexual Exploitation and Sex Trafficking of Minors in the United States. Committee on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation and Sex Trafficking of Minors in the United States; Board on Children, Youth, and Families; Institute of Medicine and National Research Council (2013, 478 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-28655-8). The study committee was co-chaired by Richard D. Krugman, vice chancellor for health affairs, and dean, University of Colorado School of Medicine, Aurora; and Ellen Wright Clayton, Craig-Weaver Professor of Pediatrics, professor of law, and co-founder, Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn. The study was funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the U.S. Department of Justice.

New Directions in Child Abuse and Neglect Research. Committee on Child Maltreatment Research, Policy, and Practice for the Next Decade: Phase Two; Board on Children, Youth, and Families; Institute of Medicine and National Research Council (2014, 442 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-28512-4). The study committee was chaired by Anne C. Peterson, research professor, Center for Human Growth and Development, University of Michigan; and founder and president, Global Philanthropy Alliance, Kalamazoo, Mich. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Both reports are available from National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242.

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