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Risks of Human Trafficking for Runaway Youth

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 5928 words Published: 18th May 2020

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Topic of Problem: Runaway Youth / Risks of Human Trafficking in LucasCounty, Ohio

In Lucas County (Toledo, Ohio) the local media frequently reports stories of human trafficking in the area. Increased media coverage of “high risk” runaway youth becoming victims of human trafficking seems to have been increasing over the last few years. The media has also reported stories surrounding problems of heroin abuse and overdoses. In some cases, the media has reported youth are intentionally exposed to heroin making them dependent on the criminals recruiting young people into the sex trade. Increased exposure in the media has sparked the public’s interest prompting the Lucas County Sheriff’s Office Drug Abuse Response Team (DART) to take action.

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Contemporary sociological research on victims of human trafficking and sex work in general is empirically rich (Lerum & Brents 2016). The application of sociology offers constructive support in further examining empirical observations of problems impacting runaway youth.  Such an implementation of sociological practice and research is important because it may urge leaders of a community into the forefront of advocating for actionable policies better serving runaway youth.  As an employee at the Lucas County Sheriff’s Office, I have been assigned to work with community social service agencies developing strategies to reduce the frequency of runaway youth through providing supportive services. The primary focus of the project is grounded in a sociological framework to decrease the probability runaways become victimized. 

Lucas County is commonly known as a “hub” for human trafficking and heroin distribution.  The highway system in Lucas County is one of the contributing influences of this problem. Geographically located within several access points to two major highway systems, the Ohio Turnpike provides direct access to the east and west and I-75 to the north and south.  Lucas County conveniently offers easy access to Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati and New York City. With the exception of New York City which is approximately a nine-hour drive from Toledo, Detroit is the shortest destination requiring one hour of travel and Chicago is the longest requiring four. For this reason, Lucas County attracts an organized criminal network of traffickers and heroin dealers targeting troubled teenagers as prey to support their criminal activities. 

Law Enforcement & Social Services: A Focused Runaway Project Overview

Law enforcement and social services offer a dichotomy of approaches in serving the general welfare of a community. While each component is important, one provides security through arresting individuals demonstrating unlawful acts, while the other provides a variety of human services. An application of a sociological imagination offers the prospect of combining these two distinct disciplines into one practical approach of improving a societal problem.

The social facts and statistical information presented in this paper are troublesome.  The need of actionable interventions positively impacting the lives of troubled runaway youth should no longer be ignored.  The scope of the runaway youth problem in Lucas County requires immediate and progressive action. Law enforcement and social services agencies of which commonly come in contact with runaway youth must work together in an effort to decrease the potential for these youth to be trafficked into the sex trade and drug addiction. Through a coordinated effort, intervening early at a critical time in the lives of at-risk youth may saves lives and money. This collaborative project consists of a two-pronged approach:  (1) Engage in early intervention with youth to reduce the probability that runaway youth will become victims of sex trafficking and drug addiction. (2) Locate already trafficked youth, prosecute their traffickers and connect youth to coordinated community-based recovery services.

Need for the FOCUS Runaway Project

Currently, the Missing Person’s Unit of the Toledo Police Department has one officer for this assignment. The Lucas County Sherriff’s Office and the Toledo Police do not currently have a coordinated response to endangered runaway youth. Law enforcement presently has a basic response in that they engage with the youth and take them to the Lucas County Juvenile Assessment Center. In many cases the police take the youth back to their home. Due to limited resources to address this problem, law enforcement’s protocol and response for endangered runaway youths is treated as a lower priority which is mainly served social services agencies.

Although endangered runaways come into contact with various social service agencies in Lucas County, other than a temporary shelter, there is not one main agency responsible for providing the necessary care for the youth. Furthermore, endangered runaways are linked to multiple local social service agencies.  The unintended consequences of the current system result in negative outcomes and fail to serve the best interests of the troubled runaway youth.   

Drug addiction and/or sex trafficking does not have to be one’s life trajectory.This proposal serves for the purpose of implementing a FOCUS Runaway Project for the Lucas County Commissioners Office which is the primary funding source. The Lucas County Sheriff’s Office Drug Abuse Response Team (D.A.R.T) will recruit members of local social service agencies and provide the necessary linkage of social supports for runaway youth. In addition, D.A.R.T will investigate and prosecute individuals committing crimes against the youth. 

Problems Addressed by Research

The second largest sex trafficking industry in the world is the United States which is estimated of involving 100,000 to 150,000 women and children. The covert criminal nature of traffickers makes it difficult to provide an exact number representing the totality of victims (Sabella 2011).  Research has shown many factors lead to individuals into becoming victims of the modern slavery of human trafficking. Perpetrators of human trafficking seek vulnerable and marginalized populations with minimal levels of social and family support as easy targets for recruitment.  Specifically, traffickers seek children with minimal supervision, frequently run away from home and live in foster care settings. Many of these children have multiple contacts with social services agencies and the juvenile criminal justice system (Logan et al. 2009; Kotrola 2010). 

Trafficking is commonly referred to as slavery because it involves threats of physical harm, extortion in recruitment, coercion, restraint, manipulation and physical force by traffickers forcing individuals into the sex trade (Schauer & Wheaton 2006; Bounds et al. 2015). Upon review of the literature, it appears a definitional consensus of human trafficking varied amongst groups, institutions, and some individuals. For example, according to OVAW 2000, President George W. Bush described human trafficking as, “…nothing less than a modern form of slavery, an unspeakable and unforgivable crime against the most vulnerable members of society”. The United States Congress in the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Act of 2000 (TVPA) distinguished human trafficking in two separate and severe classifications. In 2000, The United Nations described “trafficking persons” with words such as, fraud, deception, physical force, recruiting and harboring individuals through means of force (OVAW 2000; Schauer & Wheaton 2006). The Federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 defined sex trafficking as, a commercial sex act induced by force, fraud, or coercion. The definition specified that the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age (Estes & Weiner 2002).  Regardless of a unified agreement of a specific term of human trafficking, the underlying premise of each definition shares many common threads.

Consequences of Inattention

A runaway, is defined as a child that left home and stays out overnight. One of the major risk factors for sex trafficking of youth was becoming a run away. In Ohio, there are estimated 1,032 youth victims of sex trafficking and a total of 5,229 that are at risk of becoming trafficked (Anderson et al. 2019). According to the Lucas County Community Health Assessment (2017) reported that 2% of youth responded that they exchanged sex for something of value such as drugs, food, or money.

According to University of Toledo researchers, within two weeks after running away, the youth will likely be approached by a trafficker or recruiter (Perdue et al. 2012). Without early intervention from social services and criminal justice, it is estimated 77% of youth that have been successfully trafficked into the sex trade will also engage in adult prostitution and other risky behaviors such as drug addiction (Williamson et al. 2007). Traffickers specifically target these troubled youth through grooming and gaining their trust, eventually luring the youth into the sex trade.  Without an adequate law enforcement response, many endangered runaway youths will be exposed to insidious nature of this criminal activity.

Heroin: A Pathway to Human Trafficking   

Heroin is one of the highest addicted drugs which plagues communities throughout the United States. Initially, the opiate of choice was pain pills such as OxyContin. However, due to the reformulation of OxyContin, drug abusers made a significant shift to heroin. It has been reported over 4 million people addicted to prescription pain pills are shifting to heroin because it is cheaper and easier to access (Hiser et al. 2015; Mattick et. al. 2015). 

Individually a heroin addict finds difficulty to seek treatment on their own. Once a person is dependent on heroin, the individual is prone to engage in behaviors to sustain their access to the drug. Criminal behaviors of the addict vary including theft and other money generated crimes. Couple the complexities of the mental and emotional pain often experienced by troubled youth, a drug such as heroin provides a dangerous coping mechanism. Understanding the gravity of heroin addiction, the trafficker perpetuates the runaway youth’s dependency fueling their addiction through supplying the drug in exchange for sex labor. 

In 2017, Ohio suffered 5,111 overdose deaths. In addition, Ohio had the second highest rate of drug overdose deaths involving opioids in the in the United States. (Johnston et al., 2017). In the same year there were more than 250 deaths in Ohio reported for youth ages 15-24 due to unintentional overdoses caused by Fentanyl and related drugs (Ohio Department of Health 2017).

The drug market in Toledo does not lack a shortage of drug dealers and drugs. In the streets of Toledo, the cost of the most popular prescription opiate, Precocet 30 mg costs $30. In comparison 1/10 of white powdered heron costs about $10-20. The heroin is often mixed with Fentanyl. Drug users seek out this mixture with an understanding that Fentanyl is much stronger than heroin. The mixture provides a user with an increased high. However, this mixture is very potent and deadly. (Williamson et al. 2017). The affordability, easy access and addictive qualities of heroin and other drug mixture combinations provide a lucrative business model for dealers and perpetrators of human trafficking.


Economic Cost of Runaway Youth 

An investment in runaway youth not only saves lives and money. One may conclude through a normative assumption without early intervention, the financial cost of runaways lost to human trafficking and/or drug addiction lead to many emotional and financial costs. It is estimated as many as 75% of runaway youth also drop-out of school, limiting employment opportunities and wage earnings. Many of these runaway youths do not complete high school or ever earn their GED (Cahn et al. 2009).

The role of sociology offers a unique opportunity better serving runaway youth through program development and risk based research helping prevent exposure to human trafficking and drug abuse. Utilizing sociological perspectives not only requires engaging runaway youth, the approach empowers these individuals into becoming active in framing their struggles and problems. The outcome of a sociological approach may yield positive results which should reduce the financial costs associated with this problem. In the next section, I will present sociological theoretical frameworks which may help better understand the underlying causes of factors contributing to the problems of the runaway youth.

Application of Sociological Theoretical Frameworks and Concepts    

The field of sociology provides an explanatory and theoretical framework helping society better understand problems on macro and micro levels facing areas of addiction, alienation, and social deviance. The sociological imagination offers explanatory, research, and practical tools helping construct solutions and interventions promoting a better service delivery system meeting the complex challenges of runaway youth.

Theories pertaining to the victimization of runaway youth typically focus on engaging in deviant behaviors which may increase the risks of exposure to predators.  Youth living on their own often develop a sense of street survival strategies involving deviant behaviors. The negative chain of events associated with such life styles develop momentum over a period of time and progressively make life difficult for these youth. Exposure to such negative influences for impressionable youth, diminish opportunities for positive social and emotional development (Whiteback et al. 2001). Sociology theorists examine many complex issues often correlating with the reason(s) runaway youth desire an alternative lifestyle.

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At the staple of a good research design, theoretical perspectives help facilitate the creation of questions leading to specific areas of inquiry. In the case of runaway youth, many approaches are required in order to gain a clearer understanding of their problems.  Sociological theoretical perspectives provide the imagination of synthesizing broad information providing the framework of understanding problems on a deeper level. As in the case of a troubled runaway youth, social deviance, addiction, abandonment, isolation may all be symptomatic of their behavior(s). Sociological theory helps peel back layers of such complex issues allowing one to potentially skillfully impose a better perspective of the problem. The sociological framework is not limited to a single approach in examining any phenomena.

The theoretical concept for this proposal focuses on Durkheim’s concept of anomie. Durkheim was an individual most concerned with understanding and studying a wide range of social facts. Durkheim was the first sociologist to introduce the concept of anomie. As a very meticulous researcher, Durkheim was interested in taking societal problems and finding correlations to their social aspects. Specific interests involved social integration and the dynamics behind how society impacted the individual. Durkheim’s work is important and serves as a conduit explaining possible reasons a runaway youth eventually arrives in a state of anomie.


The theory of anomie is broad. It may be examined through theoretical interrelated relationships among cultural values, crime, economic inequality, social institutions and other aspects of society. In the case of youth, anomie is more relevant to the individuals not in school and the urban poor experiencing barriers to goal achievement. The level of an individual’s state of anomie is impacted beyond simple casual relationships. Anomie is determined by many factors including one’s position in the social structure including the availability of opportunities leading to individual success (Baron 2011).

In a study utilizing a sample of 300 homeless youth, the theory of anomie was examined through focusing on two central variables: monetary goals and legitimate opportunities to accomplish such goals. The impacts of the variables were found to be affected by areas of social modeling, economic opportunities, social support and cultural support. The findings indicated a high level of subject dissatisfaction of opportunities in life resulting in a strong willingness to engage in institutional crime to reach their goals (Baron 2011; Baumer & Gustafson 2007). In the case of the runaway youth, the findings are consistent with the exhaustive list of neglectful and risk behaviors which expose the youth to danger. The need to adapt to their environment in order to meet their basic social needs is highly conducive to living a life of isolation and deviant behaviors which may increase the risks of exposure to predators.

Durkheim’s theories of social aspects regarding integration-regulation covered a broad spectrum further specified in his theory of suicide. Durkheim’s famous work Suicide, analyzed the macro forces which develop human behavior. The subject of suicide at the time was mainly viewed as a psychological and moral problem leading to the self-destruction of the individual (Durkheim 2006). Durkheim introduced the concept of anomie which focused on the individual’s separation from the normative order of his or her society (Agnew 2000). Suicide linked anomie’s root causes potentially linking suicide as deriving from socio-affective states of the individual emotions (i.e. irritation, disappointment, anger, disgust etc). Suicide was approached as a sociological phenomenon arguing as individual social integration decreases, suicide rates will likely increase (TenHouten 2016).

While Durkheim’s theory of anomie is associated with suicide, a broader sense of the concept may relate to other problematic common threads of social life. Durkheim’s theory of anomie will help answer following question: to what extent does a lack of positive social support and loss of sense of self lead a young person into the decision of escaping their environment into a life of isolation from mainstream society?  Durkheim theoretically attempts to bridge a macro-micro divide through coming to terms how experiences shape behaviors. The emphases of Durkheim’s work surrounded the importance of “social facts” and conditions which determine a person’s course of action in life.

The concept of anomie is directly linked to macro-social forces when rapid changes occur in one’s life (Carter and Carter 2007). Durkheim examined solidarity (mechanical and organic) in relation to the functioning of social order including areas of: religion, values on morality, customs, community etc. In order to provide theoretical answers to the question above, one must view the macro-social forces of each runaway youth through a series of multiple lenses.

Durkheim viewed anomie as being the lack of regulation in the economy results in wealth for some and bankruptcy for others. Economic conditions lead to one’s state of anomie impacting rates of suicide and stabilization of business cycles ending the “boom or bust” needed to be controlled (Puffer 209). There is a particular social complexity of anomic suicide which falls into a completely different spectrum in comparison to the other forms of suicide. In the case of anomic suicide the individual fails to control passions and is very angry (Hynes 90).  It seems reasonable to assume a life of non-linear relationships, lack of social stabilization and transience of social relationships would affect an adult; let alone a troubled youth into at least some degree of anomie. Such situations integrate the “classical” manifestations of the state of anomie as described by Durkheim. The same “classical” manifestations of anomie may be applied to the troubled youth. Runaways often congregate in areas of cities within social networks of their deviant peer, many of which become trapped in a cumulative progression of deviant behaviors.  Such high risk locations place these youth in risky environments leading to interactions of drug dealing, violence and sexual encounters (Whitebeck et al. 2001).   In contemporary society, a young person experiencing such problems simply struggles with planning a clear moral compass. Inevitably, a chronic state of anomie for a troubled youth creates resolving moral dilemmas and decisions negatively affecting one’s positive life trajectory (Zarubina 2016).

A consistent message of anomie argues that the breakdown of traditional social order results in the main reason for increases of suicide.  Durkheim’s compelling arguments of suicide is not exclusive to individual psychology factors, but rather social forces. Social forces in most areas of life are a reflection of society, leading into to many pathways to a person’s life influencing their experiences. Durkheim’s positions arguing suicide is a product of society over individual. In the case of the runaway youth, the young person is committing the act of escaping their current social ties and life’s problems.  In the case of suicide, the individual has taking a step further committing a final act in order to escape their current social ties and life’s problems. One may conclude through a Durkheimian perspective, each act (although different outcomes) are products of a lack of social integration over personal choice. On a broader scale, Durkheim’s study of suicide provides a precursor of behaviors (prior to committing suicide) relating to society as a whole and leading to one’s state of anomie. It is Durkheim’s empirical evidence which may bring forth a better understanding of the troubled youth.


In general Durkheim provides an understanding into social-psychological aspects of human behavior.  Durkheim’s concept of anomie provides insight into the social construction of fragmented individuals living in a state alienation. Durkheim provides a framework leading to further inquiry of which may contribute to underlying issues of these troubled youth. Many runaway youth have limited means of social support and are in dire need of supportive interventions. Many of these youth may become sexually exploited and exposed to drugs. Arresting youth and placing them in juvenile detention centers may be traumatic for many already troubled youths Many of these incarcerated youths are in desperate need of drug treatment will not receive adequate treatment.  In an effort to promote solidarity and stability, one may argue from a Durkheim social functionalistic perspective incarceration of these youth is counter- productive leading to higher levels of anomie.

The role of the sociological theories may be utilized in promoting efforts of developing improved social supports for these troubled youth. The duty of sociology is arguably made to investigate and continually modernize the process of improving existing social systems created to help troubled youth. The role of law enforcement linking youths into community-based substance abuse treatment and counseling programs in lieu of juvenile detention centers will help such individuals access positive and supportive social systems. Thus, one question remains requiring a further scope of inquiry. To what extent may law enforcement effectively locate runaway youth and link them to services before they become exposed to the world of human trafficking and heroin addiction?

Methods and Statistical Application

The FOCUS Runaway Project will involve a process and outcome evaluation of the project. The population will be generated from local law enforcement (i.e., Missing Person’s Unit of the Toledo Police Department) once they have received a report of a runaway youth. Reports of runaway youth will be forwarded forward to the Lucas County Sheriff’s DART. If the youth is located, DART will deliver the youth to the appropriate service provider. Lucas County will contract professional evaluators creating a Focus Team of researchers (i.e., university professors / research consultant). The evaluation process will examine components which helps further understand issues impacting the runaway youth. Specifically, the evaluation will focus on six areas all of which identify and determine whether:

  1. Each component of the FOCUS project is carried out as planned;
  2. There is an increase in the number of youth that are found by DART and taken to appropriate social service agencies;
  3. There is a significant number of youth referred and enrolled in one of the intensive early intervention programs offered;
  4. There is a decrease in the number of youth that run away from home than at baseline;
  5. There is a decrease in the risk factors for human trafficking;
  6. There is a decrease in the risk for drug use and abuse.

Description of Analysis Technique

The outcome evaluation is quantitative and involves analyzing six components identified above. The process evaluation consists of conducting quarterly interviews and focus groups with FOCUS Team members. Interviews and focus groups will be audio-recorded. Data will be transcribed and analyzed line-by-line. Evaluation questions will focus in three distinct areas: the ability of the players to carry out the goals of the project, identification of those elements of the project working well, and identification of the barriers related to the project. Data will be collected after the youth was identified as a runaway and linked into treatment. Due to the nature of the area of inquiry, it is appropriate to utilize an ex post facto design. Findings will continually be fed back to FOCUS team members so they can adjust the project in order to maintain fidelity to the project, remove barriers, and increase the probability of success. An annual report of the findings should provide justification of the need for expanded runaway youth services to the funding agency (County Commissioners) and to the FOCUS Team.

Conclusion Notes

In the final Social Research and Content Paper for this course, I will attempt to expand several aspects of this current mid-term paper. In the “methods and statistical application”, an appendix of a survey for data collection will be included. Much of the survey questions will derive from a sociological perspective. In addition, as part of the “program development”, specific actual local social service agencies with a written and visual description of services will be incorporated as part of the “Focus Team”.  Further, I will attempt to refine the importance each agency serves from a sociological perspective. In the “program development” section, anticipated project barriers will be presented, as I detail the configurations of the project. 



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