If you think that you or someone you know might be a victim of trafficking or sex exploitation, please contact our SAFEline by phone at 512.267.SAFE (7233), by text at 737.888.7233 or by chat at safeaustin.org/chat.

Human trafficking is a form of modern slavery that occurs when one person exerts control over another person to exploit them economically. The victim is controlled through manipulation, violence or the threat of violence, and cannot walk away.   

The UN Protocol outlines the three main components of human trafficking:  

  • The Action — The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons
  • The Means — Threat of or use of force, deception, coercion, abuse of power, or position of vulnerability
  • The Purpose — Exploitation. Article 3 of the UN Protocol says exploitation “shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”

Human trafficking is further broken down into two forms: labor trafficking and sex trafficking. Labor trafficking occurs in contexts that can include all forms of labor and services, including domestic servitude, sweat shops and farm laborers forced to work without pay. Sex trafficking occurs in contexts that encompass the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), as well as all adults who engage in a commercial sex act because of force, fraud, or coercion.  

Barnardo’s Puppet on a String report 2011 sets out three different models of activity in the spectrum of sexual exploitation:

Abusive / Inappropriate

Usually involving one perpetrator who has inappropriate power or control over a child (physical, emotional, or financial). One indicator may be a significant age gap. The child may believe they are in a loving relationship.

‘Boyfriend’ model of exploitation and peer exploitation

The perpetrator befriends and grooms a child into a ‘relationship’ and then coerces or forces them to have sex with friends or associates.

Peer exploitation is where children are forced or coerced into sexual activity by peers and associates. Sometimes this can be associated with gang activity, but not always.

Organized / networked sexual exploitation or trafficking

Children (often connected) are passed through networks, possibly over geographical distances, between towns and cities where they may be forced/coerced into sexual activity with multiple men. Often this occurs in ‘sex parties,’ and children who are involved may be used as agents to recruit others into the network. Some of this activity is described as serious organized crime and can involve the organized buying and selling of children by perpetrators.


  • 79,000 minors and youth are victims of sex trafficking in Texas, according to a study by the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault (IDVSA) at The University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work.
  • The Department of Justice (DOJ) estimates that 27% of sex trafficking victims are underage (2016).
  • There were 44,741 Texas children reported missing in 2013. 
  • Of the more than 18,500 endangered runaways reported to The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2016, one in six were likely victims of child sex trafficking (2016).

Warning signs

The key indicators of commercial sexual exploitation include (please note: this list is not exhaustive):

  • Health
    • Physical symptoms (bruising suggestive of either physical or sexual assault)
    • Chronic fatigue
    • Recurring or multiple sexually transmitted infections
    • Pregnancy and/or seeking an abortion
    • Evidence of forced drug, alcohol or other substance misuse
    • Sexually risky behavior
  • Education
    • Truancy/disengagement with education or considerable change in performance at school
  • Emotional and behavioral issues
    • Volatile behavior exhibiting extreme array of mood swings or use of abusive language
    • Involvement in petty crime such as shoplifting or stealing
    • Secretive behavior
    • Reports of being seen in places known to be used for sexual exploitation, including adult venues (bars and clubs)
  • Identity
    • Low self-image, low self-esteem, self-harming behavior, e.g., cutting, overdosing, eating disorder, promiscuity
  • Relationships
    • Hostility in relationships with staff, family members as appropriate and significant others
    • Physical aggression
    • Placement breakdown
    • Reports from reliable sources (e.g., family, friends or other professionals) suggesting the likelihood of involvement in sexual exploitation
    • Detachment from age-appropriate activities
    • Associating with other children who are known to be sexually exploited
    • Known to be sexually active
    • Sexual relationship with a significantly older person, or younger person who is suspected of being abusive
    • Unexplained relationships with older adults
    • Possible inappropriate use of the Internet and forming relationships, particularly with adults, via the Internet
    • Phone calls, text messages or letters from unknown adults
    • Adults or older youths loitering outside the home
    • Persistently missing, staying out overnight or returning late with no plausible explanation
    • Returning after having been missing, looking well cared for despite having no known home base
    • Missing for long periods, with no known home base
    • Going missing and being found in areas where they have no known links
    • Note: While the focus is often on older men as perpetrators, younger men and women may also be involved and practitioners should be aware of this possibility. Some research indicates the prevalent offender profile is a white male aged 18 to 25.
  • Social presentation
    • Change in appearance
    • Going out dressed in clothing unusual for them (inappropriate for age, borrowing clothing from older young people)
  • Family and environmental factors
    • History of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse; neglect; domestic violence; parental difficulties
  • Housing
    • Pattern of previous street homelessness
    • Having keys to premises other than those known about
  • Income
    • Possession of large amounts of money with no plausible explanation
    • Acquisition of expensive clothes, mobile phones or other possessions without plausible explanation
    • Accounts of social activities with no plausible explanation of the source of necessary funding
  • Other Areas to Consider
    • Practitioners should be aware that many young people who are sexually exploited do not see themselves as victims. In such situations, discussions with them about concerns should be handled with great sensitivity.
    • In assessing whether a young person is a victim of sexual exploitation, or at risk, please note the comments about consent below; careful consideration should be given to the issue of consent. It is important to bear in mind that:
      • A child under the age of 13 is not legally capable of consenting to sex (it is statutory rape) or any other type of sexual touching
      • Sexual activity with a child under 16 is also an offence
      • It is an offence for a person to have a sexual relationship with a 16- or 17-year- old if they hold a position of trust or authority in relation to them;
      • Where sexual activity with a 16- or 17-year-old does not result in an offence being committed, it may still result in harm, or the likelihood of harm being suffered
      • Non-consensual sex is rape whatever the age of the victim
      • If the victim is incapacitated through drink or drugs, or the victim or his or her family has been subject to violence or the threat of it, they cannot be considered to have given true consent; therefore, offences may have been committed
      • Child sexual exploitation is potentially a child protection issue for all children under the age of 18 years and not just those in a specific age group.


Because human trafficking of minors is a key issue of concern, we created SAFE CARES (Collaboration, Advocacy, Response and Engagement for Survivors). The goal is to provide a comprehensive response for survivors of exploitation by creating opportunities to be, and feel, safe and connected. SAFE CARES serves young people, 12 years of age or older, who have been, or are currently, survivors of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE), domestic minors of sex trafficking (DMST) or survivors of child sex trafficking (CST).

SAFE CARES allows us to provide a comprehensive program specifically designed for this population. Due to trauma and a lack of trusting relationships with adults, young people who have been sexually exploited and trafficked respond best to services specifically designed for this issue.

SAFE CARES staff is available to work with community partners to build capacity to identify commercial sexual exploitation survivors without direct disclosure. Anyone who has regular contact with young people is in a good position to notice changes in behavior and physical signs that may indicate involvement in sexual exploitation. Parents, caretakers and anyone in a position of responsibility with a child should also know how to monitor online activity and be prepared to monitor computer usage where they are suspicious that a child is being groomed online. The fact that a child is 16 or 17 years old should not be taken as a sign they are no longer at risk of sexual exploitation.

If you think that you or someone you know might be a victim of trafficking or sex exploitation, please contact our SAFEline by phone at 512.267.SAFE (7233), by text at 737.888.7233 or by chat at safeaustin.org/chat.

If you feel that you have been trafficked or have experienced sexual assault, abuse, or exploitation, you can learn more about how SAFE can help.