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Confronting Commercial Sexual Exploitation and Sex Trafficking of Minors in the U.S.: An IOM Report

December 2, 2013


By Natalie McClain, PhD, RN, CPNP, clinical associate professor, William F. Connell School of Nursing, Boston College, and Barbara Guthrie, PhD, RN, FAAN, Independence Foundation Professor of Nursing, Yale University School of Nursing. The above educational video was created by the Institute of Medicine and is available on YouTube.

Each day in the United States, minors experience abuse and violence that is overlooked and unidentified. In some cases, recognition of the abuse makes these minors subject to arrest rather than assistance and care. These children and adolescents are the victims and survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. A recent report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the National Research Council sheds light on this serious domestic problem and underscores the critical role that nurses must play in preventing, identifying, and responding to these crimes.

Confronting Commercial Sexual Exploitation and Sex Trafficking of Minors in the United States is the culmination of a two-year study conducted by an independent panel of experts appointed by the National Academies of Science and funded by the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The report states that commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors are acts of abuse and violence against children and adolescents. However, the response to these victims is often starkly different from that experienced by other victims of child abuse and neglect. In most states, for example, underage victims of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking can be arrested and prosecuted.

Long-term consequences; inadequate services. The report also notes that the consequences of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking are far-reaching and long lasting and include a range of mental and physical health problems. The committee found that there are too few services available to meet current needs of victims of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors. In addition, “services that do exist are unevenly distributed geographically, lack adequate resources, and vary in their ability to provide specialized care to victims/survivors of these crimes” (IOM and NRC, 2013, p. 260).

This form of abuse and violence against children and adolescents is largely underreported. This is because identification of victims can be challenging. Once victims are identified, there are few service providers who are adequately prepared to assist and care for them. The report describes this and numerous other challenges faced by professionals in law enforcement, education, victim and support services, and health care who seek to prevent and identify these crimes and to assist their victims. It also provides clear guidance on and examples of strategies to increase awareness, strengthen laws, and advance knowledge and understanding.

Nurses are essential partners in preventing, identifying, and responding to commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors. Two of the report chapters—Health and Health Care and The Education Sector—underscore the critical role of nurses as first responders in prevention, detection, and care of victims. Victims may seek out health care, thereby providing an opportunity for nurses in a range of settings to identify victims and survivors of this abuse.

The report notes that nurses will need to receive additional training to recognize victims among the patients they serve and to provide quality health care services and timely, appropriate referrals. Engaging nurses as partners in efforts to prevent, identify, and respond to commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking can help reduce this unaddressed and misunderstood form of child abuse.

 
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