The continued criminalization of youth experiencing commercial sexual exploitation in the United States has resulted in an over-representation in the juvenile justice system that requires robust and immediate response mechanisms. Specialty court programs are an innovative model of care aiming to better serve judicially involved youth at risk or with confirmed histories of commercial sexual exploitation.
Commercial sexual exploitation of children, commonly known as child sex trafficking, is defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 as inducing a minor under 18 into sexual acts for items of value, such as money, food or shelter. Predisposing factors that put youth at higher risk for exploitation include identification as a racial or ethnic minority, experiencing childhood maltreatment and abuse, and histories of running away or housing instability, among other factors. These vulnerabilities are often overlapping factors catalyzing youth into the juvenile justice system. Notably, youth at risk or with confirmed histories of exploitation are known to intersect with the juvenile justice and child welfare systems prior to, during and after incidence of commercial sexual exploitation.
Nationwide, commercially sexually exploited youth have historically been arrested, detained and adjudicated on criminal charges as a result of their victimization. This has led to entrenchment in a punitive system that further exacerbates their complex trauma and unmet needs. There have, however, been significant efforts to shift the paradigm by identifying and redefining these youth as victims of sexual abuse.
Decriminalization efforts have resulted in more robust legal protections, such as Safe Harbor legislation, and targeted specialized services, including court diversion programs. Despite efforts to reroute youth from the juvenile justice system to the child welfare system, many of these youth still intersect with the judicial system. Specialty courts within these systems provide an alternative, nonadversarial approach to serving a vulnerable but promising population.
The Office for Victims of Crime highlights specific objectives and characteristics that make specialty court programs unique. Emergent courts are largely focused on increasing the identification of youth experiencing exploitation, assessing their individual needs and diverting them to specialized, collaborative and comprehensive care. These objectives are operationalized through multidisciplinary and interagency collaboration with a dedicated calendar and consistent team.
Collaborative efforts, such as coordinated multidisciplinary team meetings, ensure there are ongoing assessments of the youths’ multifarious needs and that treatment needs are integrated into case plans. Additionally, maintaining a dedicated team allows the youth to develop consistent interpersonal relationships with their care team, which may have positive effects.
Courts are promising, but data limited
Unlike traditional courts, specialized programs often utilize survivor-centered, trauma-informed and harm reduction approaches. A survivor-centered approach ensures the voices of survivors are both elicited and integrated in service planning while trauma-informed trainings ensures stakeholders are able to understand the effects of trauma and appropriate response strategies. Similar to other problem-solving courts, such as drug courts, a harm-reduction approach contributes to a more rehabilitative framework.
Though there is a lack of empirical data measuring the impact of these approaches within courts specific to commercial sexual exploitation, prior literature has documented that a harm reduction model is developmentally appropriate for adolescent youth, which can lead to positive behavior change and outcomes. Taken together, these approaches offer a less punitive and more rehabilitative model of care.
Extant research suggests that specialty courts are a promising service delivery model for youth impacted by exploitation, though empirical data is limited. In a study led by the Commercial Sexual Exploitation Research Group at the University of California, Los Angeles, researchers explored the characteristics of a specialty court program, the Succeeding Through Resilience and Achievement (STAR) Court, for justice-involved youth at risk or with confirmed histories of exploitation. Findings indicated that STAR Court increased the identification of treatment needs, linkages to services and overall stability among youth.
Specifically, youth benefited from more referrals to and utilization of mental health and substance use treatment services than before entering the court program. Their increased stabilization was measured by the youths’ overall decrease in substantiated child welfare allegations, incidents of running away, child welfare placements and citations while court-involved.
Additionally, prior research suggests that specialty courts in the juvenile justice system enhance trust, communication and safety, and reduce shame among youth. While these studies offer preliminary data, critical gaps in knowledge remain, such as long-term outcomes, unintended consequences of programs and a standardized measurement of success. In short, these gaps limit the ability to fully understand and measure the effectiveness of these court programs.
Specialized court programs have several limitations that can be addressed by the judicial system to both measure and enhance their effectiveness. First, available services are largely gender-specific and focused on the treatment needs of cisgender girls. The focus on girls and young women further marginalizes boys, transgender and gender nonconforming youth, and adults. These models can integrate stakeholders and approaches that account for the intersectional and diverse identities of those impacted by commercial sexual exploitation, especially minority status due to race, sexual orientation, and gender.
Second, data infrastructures are often antiquated and limited. Data collection should be consistent and systematic to better understand the impact and effectiveness of available services. The use of safe and secure electronic databases, rather than paper case files, would streamline communication and improve the tracking and monitoring of treatment referrals, services and judicial movements.
Third, research institutions could partner with the judicial system to analyze findings and compare outcomes of youth involved in the specialty program and their counterparts in the traditional judicial system. Fourth, there is no governmental entity formally monitoring available programs across the U.S. or network linking programs and stakeholders. This makes it difficult to quantify or compare the types of programs available, identify lessons learned or best practices, and replicate programs. Addressing these limitations could further improve our understanding of specialized court programs and improve service delivery within the judicial system.
There is currently no standardized model of care for serving youth impacted by exploitation. However, specialty courts offer innovative practices that can guide efforts in the judicial system. As data amasses there will be more opportunities to identify strengths and challenges of specialty courts. Researchers and practitioners can work together to ensure that data is accessible and findings are disseminated widely to better inform services for youth in the judicial system. Policymakers can ensure that these programs have necessary resources, including funding, to adequately serve youth in their jurisdiction.
Lastly, it is imperative that researchers, practitioners and policymakers are culturally attuned to the needs of the populations they serve and account for the intersectionality of their identities. Specifically, stakeholders should center the voices and perspectives of individuals with lived experience during the development of new and assessment of existing specialty court programs to ensure they meet the specific needs of youth experiencing commercial sexual exploitation.
Sarah Godoy is a research associate in the David Geffen School of Medicine and a lecturer in the Department of Social Welfare at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Her scholarship focuses on youth and young adults impacted by commercial sexual exploitation in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems and their intersection with specialty courts, reproductive and sexual health care, and technology.