What cops need to know about minor sex trade

Nationally, the average age at which DMST victims are introduced into prostitution is 13 years old

Every law enforcement officer needs to be familiar with the term Domestic Minor Sex Trade (DMST). It is both the sector of human trafficking most often discussed in American media and where the most change in legislation is occurring. 

As the name describes, DMST refers to U.S. citizens under the age of 18 who are exploited through commercial sex, or where the victim is a foreign national under 18 and the exploitation occurs in the United States. 

Before we examine some of the most important points relating to DMST, a little historical background is in order.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act 
Our nation’s response to human trafficking dates to the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, passed by Congress in 2000, and initially focused on foreign national victims (non-U.S. citizens) who were identified in the United States as victims of slavery. The TVPA defined human trafficking as forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation achieved through the use of force, fraud, or coercion, with one notable exception: if the victim was under age 18, and a victim of commercial sexual exploitation (as opposed to a victim of forced labor, such as domestic servitude or working in a sweat shop) then the force, fraud, or coercion did not need to be proven. 

Simply stated, the logic was that since a minor cannot legally consent to engage in sex, then any commercial sexual exploitation could only be achieved through force, fraud, or coercion. The passage of the TVPA brought a new focus on slavery, and with it, the need for a victim-centered approach, and the need for a coordinated multidisciplinary response involving law enforcement, victim services providers (VSPs), and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs). 

As our knowledge about human trafficking within the United States evolved, there came the realization that many of the enslaved were not foreign-born, but were U.S. citizens under the age of 18. The term DMST was coined to describe this particular type of trafficking, and its victim. With time, many states created new laws (or changed existing laws) that specifically pertain to DMST victims. Here are some key points to understand.

A victim of DMST is just that: a victim. 

They should never be referred to as a “child prostitute” or given another derogatory title. 

They may not like the police, they may not be cooperative (for reasons that will be explained shortly), but they are still a victim. 

When talking with other professionals the victim should be described as “a victim of DMST”. Another appropriate term is Commercially Sexually Exploited Child, or CSEC, and can be used in conversation or in your reports such as, “The victim is a CSEC who was forced into prostitution by her pimp.”

Many academic and other studies have shown a correlation between sexual abuse in the home, substance abuse, homelessness or runaway activity, and becoming a victim of DMST. Nationally, the average age at which DMST victims are introduced into prostitution is 13 years old! 

These other forms of victimization at an early age will contribute to the often hostile and uncooperative nature of DMST victims toward law enforcement. Investigators must be patient, empathetic, and — most importantly — be willing to complete the best possible investigation possible under the circumstances. Ask victims about their life history and upbringing, looking for those conditions that made them susceptible to traffickers.  

Be patient when trying to make your criminal case, as often the victim: 

•    may state they voluntarily engaged in prostitution (remember, if a minor cannot consent to sex, they cannot consent to prostitution)
•    may refuse to comment on the role of the trafficker (often a “boyfriend”)
•    may disappear and be unavailable to testify in court

The good news is there are many excellent stories from across the country where investigators encountered the same victim several times — or had to track down the victim, or referred the victim multiple times to a victim services provider — before the victim finally decided to cooperate with law enforcement (and sent their trafficker to prison).

DMST is the most likely form of human trafficking American law enforcement officers will encounter, but always bear in mind that anyone can become a victim of trafficking whether it be forced labor or sexual exploitation. Victims can be born in the United States or foreign nationals — regardless of citizenship or immigration status, all victims of human trafficking are protected under federal law. 

Finally, remember that slavery can occur in any type of community. 

•    For historical background on the creation and passage of the TVPA, along with case studies of human trafficking visit: A Crime So Monstrous, by E. Benjamin Skinner  
•    For a concise list of DMST statistics and data visit: Shared Hope International

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