Facilitating disclosure among adolescent victims of sex trafficking

Facilitating disclosure among adolescent victims of sex trafficking

Novel interviewing approaches for youth who have been victims of sex trafficking, as well as better communication between researchers and practitioners, are needed to improve identification of the youth victims, increase their willingness to disclose, and provide necessary interventions. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2019, Vol. 25, No. 4, 225–238

Overcoming disclosure reluctance in youth victims of sex trafficking: New directions for research, policy, and practice


Jennifer Lavoie, University of Cambridge
Kelli L. Dickerson, University of California, Irvine
Allison D. Redlich, George Mason University
Jodi A. Quas, University of California, Irvine


An alarming number of youth worldwide are victims of commercial sexual exploitation, particularly sex trafficking. Normative developmental processes and motivations across the adolescent period—the age when youth are at greatest risk for trafficking—combined with their history, make them highly likely to be reluctant to disclose their exploitation to police, who often encounter victims because they are suspected of delinquency and crime and who interrogate the victims as suspects. Little scientific and policy attention has been devoted to understanding how to question these victims in a way that reduces their disclosure reluctance and increases their provision of legally relevant information. In the current review, we describe research concerning trafficking victims’ histories and exploitative experiences, juvenile suspects’ and victims’ encounters with the legal system, and best-practice forensic interviewing approaches to elicit disclosures from child victims. We highlight the implications of these areas for understanding the dynamics between how police encounter and interact with adolescent trafficking victims and whether and how the victims disclose trafficking details during these interactions. We close with an agenda for research to test interviewing methods for suspected victims of sex trafficking and with policy and practice recommendations for interviewers.


adolescence, disclosure reluctance, commercial sexual exploitation, sex trafficking, interviewing

Summary of the Research

“Each year, more than one million children and adolescents worldwide are documented as having been commercially sexually exploited; that is, having been manipulated or coerced into some form of sexual activity or pornography in exchange for cash, goods, or services given to a third party. This exploitation is significant, given its pervasive and lifelong consequences for victims, for its effects on families and entire communities, and for the challenges it poses to justice system efforts to protect victims and prosecute perpetrators.” (p. 225)

“The true prevalence of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) is extremely difficult to determine. […] Its discovery instead is highly dependent on victim disclosure and, as we discuss here, victims may be highly reluctant to disclose, making it extremely difficult to identify them, intervene, and prosecute those who commit this crime.” (p. 225)

“Unfortunately, very little is known about how best to obtain clear and accurate disclosures from these victims about their exploitation. […] Research is needed that directly tests, in a systematic manner, which interviewing approaches are likely to yield the most detailed and accurate accounts from suspected youth victims of sex trafficking, and which approaches are not.” (pp. 225–226)

“Our specific aims are as follows: (a) describe disclosure reluctance in youth victims of sex trafficking, particularly developmental, motivational, and experiential reasons for their likely reluctance; (b) review how trafficked youth come into contact with the justice system, as this contact shapes the ways that they are questioned and their disclosure likelihood; (c) discuss what is currently known about forensic interviewing approaches for suspected victims of sex trafficking, and draw parallels between these approaches and best-practice questioning practices for other populations of child victims; and (d) outline key questions for future research to identify which interviewing strategies should be most effective in eliciting disclosures from youth suspected of having been sexually trafficked.” (p. 226)

“Before turning to our review, two important points of clarification are needed. First, our review focuses primarily on adolescent victims of sexual trafficking. […] Second, because various terms have been used to refer to youth (and adults) subjected to different forms of CSE, it is important to define sex trafficking and related terms. CSE, as mentioned, refers to any form of manipulation or coercion of individuals into sexual activity or pornography in exchange for something of value. Sex trafficking refers to the preparation, harboring, or transfer of individuals for sexually exploitative purposes, within or across countries. […] We label individuals who have committed acts of trafficking or manipulated youth into CSE as perpetrators or traffickers.” (p. 226)

“Although the anecdotal examples certainly suggest that nondisclosure among youth victims of sex trafficking is a significant problem, psychological science provides insight into why it is likely occurring. One contributing factor, for example, is developmental. […] Adolescence generally is a time of expanding interests, identity exploration, and growing autonomy, all of which contribute to a tendency to experiment with new behaviors, combined with a tendency not to tell adults about those behaviors. […] There is clear evidence for age-normative reductions in adolescents’ willingness to tell adults about some risky experiences.” (p. 227)

“A related tendency in adolescents is their increasing desire for autonomy. As a way of establishing that autonomy, adolescents sometimes explore new religious, political, and sexual views. […] Adolescents also sometimes take responsibility for decisions and behaviors into which they were manipulated or pressured, either because they fail to recognize that they were manipulated or because they do not want to present themselves as vulnerable to others’ manipulations.” (p. 227)

“These normative developmental processes of identity exploration and feelings of autonomy have implications for disclosure patterns in adolescent victims of sex trafficking. First, the victims may have stumbled into trafficking without being fully aware of what they were getting themselves into, for example, by being manipulated while engaging in other activities (e.g., drugs, gang activities) or through extended friend networks. […] Second, adolescents’ desire for autonomy can reduce their cooperation in settings in which they feel their right to conceal private information has been violated.” (p. 227)

“Beyond normative developmental processes shaping victims’ disclosure tendencies, victims’ prior experiences also significantly impact how they perceive and interact with adults, including legal professionals, and hence what they are likely to disclose. First, high percentages of trafficking victims have a history of maltreatment exposure and removal from home; many have bounced around foster and group home settings for years.” (p. 227)

“Second, victims’ experiences while being trafficked play a crucial role in their likely reluctance to disclose as well. For youth victims of sexual abuse generally, being closely related to a perpetrator (e.g., parent, trusted caregiver) is associated with increases in both the delay in how long it takes the youth to disclose and their risk for recanting once they do.” (p. 227)

“In addition to relationship-related processes, victims’ own feelings of guilt and shame likely play a role in their disclosure tendencies. Such feelings are common among child and adolescent victims of abuse generally across a range of different types of victim-perpetrator relationships and have been shown to contribute to delayed disclosures, denials, and recantations.” (p. 228)

“One other aspect to consider in relation to disclosure tendencies concerns a more pragmatic component of victims’ experiences, namely their reliance on the trafficker, not for romance but for basic needs (e.g., food, shelter) and amenities (e.g., phone).” (p. 228)

“Youth suspected of having been sex trafficked or at risk for sex trafficking come to the attention of the authorities via several different paths, though rarely initially via the victim’s own disclosure. The most common way is because the victims are suspected of delinquency or crime. When this occurs, the police may question the victims using interviewing tactics common to interrogations of criminal suspects. Such tactics can undermine disclosure accuracy and credibility and foster mistrust and hostility. The tactics also make it extremely difficult to build rapport, be supportive, and conduct an interview in a manner that promotes, rather than inhibits, victims’ comfort and cooperation. A comprehensive analysis of the extent to which victims are questioned like suspects, and the consequences of doing so, is needed, as is an analysis of questioning approaches, and their effects on victim disclosures, in jurisdictions with and without specialized trafficking units.” (pp. 230–231)

“In contrast to evidence that suggests disclosure reluctance is likely quite high among adolescent victims of sex trafficking, particularly when they are initially treated and interrogated as suspects rather than victims, almost no research exists indicating how such victims are likely questioned legally. […] Studies raise some concerns about the value of open-ended prompts, particularly when used exclusively with trafficked adolescents or possibly adolescent victims generally. However, the samples were small, no formal interviewing protocol was followed by the police interviewers, and one of the studies was qualitative, precluding generalizations.” (p. 231)

“The effects of open-ended prompts in interviews with victims of sex trafficking, […] need to be studied comprehensively, along with the effects of several other factors, like victim age or the combined use of closed- and open-ended prompts (e.g., follow-ups), to assess how each shapes victims’ reporting tendencies. Until such studies are conducted, recommendations for strict adherence to specific protocols or question types to elicit details from trafficking victims are premature.” (p. 231)

“In closing, a subset of highly vulnerable adolescent victims of sexual abuse, namely those who have suffered sex trafficking, are likely extremely reluctant to disclose. These adolescents, because of their personal histories, abuse experiences, and relationship to the perpetrator, are likely quite skeptical and untrusting of adults, including legal professionals. This is especially true when the adolescents are initially treated like suspects who engaged in criminal activity or as prostitutes. Novel interviewing approaches are needed to improve identification of these victims and increase their willingness to disclose and provide legally relevant details about their experiences. Doing so will ensure that they receive crucial services to facilitate their recovery and ensure that those who exploit these victims are stopped from doing further harm. Additional research testing such approaches, and improved communication between and training of both scientists and practitioners, will go a long way toward identification of and interventions for youth who have been the victims of sex trafficking.” (p. 233)

Translating Research into Practice

“Although a critical goal of our review was to highlight the need for more comprehensive research focused on interviewing strategies for suspected adolescent victims of sex trafficking, two key practical recommendations can already be made based on existing knowledge. The first is a clear need for legal professional training on adolescent development, and how developmental processes play out in interactions with adolescent victims of sex trafficking. The second is greater attention to understanding the types of sexual abuse adolescents are more versus less likely to endure, as these experiences shape in profound ways their reactions to questioning—by any authority figure—about the abuse, their role, and its consequences.” (p. 233)

“Adolescents are at significant risk for having been manipulated into trafficking, but also into a relationship with a sexual predator. These experiences lead to a complex set of motivations that need to be understood to respond effectively in a way that ensures the victims receive much-needed services and perpetrators are successfully prosecuted. Legal professionals cannot treat all adolescent victims the same and cannot equate them with child victims or, in the case of trafficking victims, with juvenile suspects. Differences in development, experiences, and needs all shape victims’ reactions to the authorities. Greater knowledge about adolescent victims, and better integration of science, policy, and practice can already provide considerable guidance to help professionals identify and intervene on behalf of these highly vulnerable populations of victims with unique challenges and needs.” (p. 233)

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Well-established, empirically-supported forensic interviewing protocols already exist that outline best-practice questioning strategies to elicit accurate and complete disclosures from child victims of sexual abuse. […] Although the specific approach and phrasing of questions and follow-ups vary slightly across protocols, all recommend rapport building, providing noncontingent social support, and using open-ended recall and follow-up prompts to elicit narrative responses from children about salient and distressing events that they experienced or witnessed. Such strategies do not always elicit disclosures, but they have been consistently shown to increase the likelihood of disclosure of victimization experiences and transgressions, the amount of detail youth provide about negative experiences, and youth’s reported comfort during interviews.” (pp. 231–232)

“Such strategies have also been shown to reduce errors, and, as a result, are less likely than other approaches (e.g., selective reinforcement, option-posing questions) to raise concerns about the credibility of children’s reports. Finally, the same strategies appear to confer benefits in interviews with youth suspects, who have been found to provide a greater amount of detail when questioned using open-ended recall and follow-up prompts in a supportive manner than when questioned using suggestive prompts in an interrogative manner.” (p. 232)

“The unique risk factors in the lives and relationships of victims of sex trafficking, combined with their typical encounters with the police, make their needs in forensic settings understandably complex. As such, direct application of best practices for interviews with child victims to adolescent victims of sex trafficking is unlikely to yield uniformly positive results. Instead, more sophisticated research is needed that takes into account adolescent development and trafficking victims’ experiences when designing and testing interviewing approaches. Four important directions for this research are described here.” (p. 232)

“The first and perhaps most pressing need is for systematic research documenting current approaches to forensic interviewing of victims of sex trafficking. That is, although there are multiple reasons to suspect both high levels of disclosure reluctance in the victims and their likely initial treatment as suspects rather than victims, very little is known about how their encounters with legal professionals actually unfold.” (p. 232)

“A worthwhile place to start, therefore, would be to document how often adolescent victims of sex trafficking, compared perhaps to adolescents who experience other forms of sexual abuse (e.g., pornography, seduction by an online predator), are questioned by a trained forensic interviewing specialist versus an investigator without specific training in interviewing or in child and adolescent development. It would also be worthwhile to evaluate training, perceptions, and experiences of officers in special trafficking or sex crime units and compare their approaches to those of officers not in specialized units and to interviewers who question other populations of suspected child victims.” (p. 232)

“Regarding the interviews themselves, it will be important to investigate how they unfold, including how police build rapport, what types of questions police ask, whether adolescents are treated more like suspects or victims, and how they respond.” (p. 232)

“Of importance, initial investigations of current practices need to go beyond simply documenting the ways in which police question suspected victims of sex trafficking (e.g., type of questions asked). The tone, as interrogative (similar to that used with juvenile suspects) or supportive (similar to that used with child victims), and on what topics police focus their questions would be enormously valuable to identify.” (p. 232)

“A second and equally important direction for research is to identify, using rigorous and creative experimental designs, mechanisms underlying adolescents’ willingness (or not) to disclose personal experiences to adults.” (p.232)

“Third is the need to test the effects of variants of rapport and support on adolescents’ disclosures, comfort, and cooperation.” (p.233)

“Fourth and finally, the effects of different questioning approaches (e.g., high proportion of closed-ended questions, interrogative tone) on adolescents’ perceived credibility in trafficking cases need to be tested.” (p. 233)

Join the Discussion

As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

Authored by Kseniya Katsman

Kseniya Katsman is a Master’s student in Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her interests include forensic application of dialectical behavior therapy, cultural competence in forensic assessment, and risk assessment, specifically suicide risk. She plans to continue her education and pursue a doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

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