The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Are there hundreds of thousands of sex-trafficked runaways in the United States?

(iStock by Getty Images)

“In the United States, more than 800,000 children are reported missing every year, and nearly half end up living on the streets. Seventy percent will become sex trafficking victims, most within their first 72 hours of living on the street.”

Defiance College news release, June 15, 2015

“One in 6 runaways in 2014 were likely sex trafficking victims. That is up from 1 in 7 in 2013.”

— graphic by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, on its Web site.

Defiance College, a liberal arts college in Ohio, recently announced that students had developed software using facial recognition technology to help identify missing children from images online. As part of the news release, the college strung together a bunch of statistics to illustrate the severity of the sex trafficking problem among runaways.

Separately, the congressionally mandated National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) prominently displays on its Web site a separate set of statistics on sex trafficking among runaways.

As we have demonstrated in recent months, statistics on human trafficking are often heedlessly repeated without much scrutiny. The implication in both statements is that hundreds of thousands of runaways were sex trafficking victims. What’s the evidence to support that?

The Facts

The Defiance College news release mentions four distinct assertions: 800,000 children are reported missing every year, and of that, nearly half end up living on the streets. Then, of that 400,000 or so, 70 percent will become trafficking victims — most within 72 hours. Do the math, and that’s supposedly nearly 300,000 runaways a year trapped in the sex trade.

The news release provided no sources, but Tim Wedge, a Defiance College assistant professor, said the source of his statistics is NCMEC, though he did not provide citations.

“I did make a misstatement,” he added. “The statement that 70 percent of those children would be trafficked within 72 hours should have said that they would be ‘solicited for sex’ within the first 72 hours. That mistake was mine, and not NCMEC’s.”

This distinction obviously makes a big difference. But then Wedge pointed to the NCMEC’s “1 in 6” statistic as evidence that the news release was largely on target. “NCMEC estimates that 1 in 6 of all missing children are actively being trafficked (2014 figures). Using their 800,000 figure, this would be about 128,000 a year,” Wedge said.

But there are huge problems with the 800,000 figure in the first place. While it is mentioned in a document on the NCMEC Web site, the organization notes that it is old data from 1999, derived from the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children (NISMART), a random-sample survey released by an arm of the Justice Department. As we have noted before, this same study is frequently misused for the misleading claim that 58,000 children a year are “abducted.” (The number of stereotypical kidnappings listed in the report is actually 115.)

David Finkelhor, a University of New Hampshire professor who is director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and a key author of the study, said that the Defiance College news release glommed together a number of unrelated statistics from different studies to reach an unwarranted conclusion. “An extremely small percentage of runaways end up homeless,” he said, instead of the 50-percent figure in the college’s news release.

The 800,000 figure in the NISMART survey refers to cases where parents reported children were missing to either the police or a missing children’s agency. (All told, the report said, 1.3 million children were reported missing by their caretakers or were missed by the caretaker for at least an hour but no report was filed).  But 99.8 percent of the kids were recovered. That left only a total of 2,500 (0.2 percent) children who did not return home or had not been located; most were runaways from institutions.

On top of that, Finkelhor said that runaway population has declined significantly the past 20 years, in part because of cell phones and computers. “Kids have a longer lease these days,” he said, “Kids also have more stuff to do around the home. If they leave, they lose access to their toys.”

Staca Shehan, a sex trafficking expert at NCMEC, agreed that “800,000” is “no longer an accurate assessment of the issue.”

The other statistics in the college news release — that 70 percent of the homeless will become trafficking victims and the 72-hour claim – appear to be nonsense facts. Random reports, often from advocacy groups rather than social scientists, have made various claims over the years, often based on small samples and limited interviews.

It is also important to remember that the Federal Trafficking Victims Act of 2000 set age 18 as a dividing line for the sale of sex, no matter the age of consent in a state, so any runaway under the age of 18 who trades sex for shelter or food is by definition “trafficked,” even if no pimp is involved. A 2011 study funded by the National Institute of Justice found that nearly 90 percent of sex workers in Atlantic City under the age of 18 reported they had no pimp.

This brings us to NCMEC’s 1 in 6 statistic, which Wedge used to justify his high estimates.We’ve already demonstrated that the 800,000 number is not relevant in the context of runaways. But what is the NCMEC statistic based on?

Deep in its Web site, NCMEC suggests that this number refers to cases reported to the organization itself. “It is not from empirical research,” Shehan acknowledged. “It is literally a trend that we see, but you could not extrapolate to say this is a nationwide statistic.” (The 1 in 6 figure was rounded up from 1 in 5.6, since it would seem odd to have a partial child.)

For 2014, NCMEC received a little over 10,000 reports. (In 2013, NCMEC received just under 9,000.) So that means that about 1,800 children in 2014 were reported to have some link to sex trafficking based on certain criteria — an arrest of a pimp, a caregiver’s report that the child was involved in the sex trade or because the runaway was under 18 and exchanged sex for food, money or shelter. The numbers may have gone up because of better reporting rather than more cases, she said.

Shehan said NCMEC increasingly is trying to rely on its own data in its publications, because the organization has too frequently been cited as the source for numbers that it did not produce.

The Pinocchio Test

This is yet another cautionary tale about the misuse of statistics. As an academic institution, Defiance College should not be so sloppy in cobbling together outdated and dubious “facts,” even in service of a potentially worthwhile endeavor. While the news release gave the impression of hundreds of thousands of sex trafficking victims, the actual number appear to be substantially smaller.

The Four Pinocchios are for the college, but at the same time NCMEC also needs to be more transparent about the source of its data — and its limitations. The organization needs to clearly explain that the “1 in 6” figure is not a nationwide statistic and merely reflects cases directly reported to NCMEC.  (Update: To its credit, NCMEC made this recommended change.) The organization also needs to more thoroughly scrub its Web site of outdated statistics, or else the mistakes made by Defiance College will be replicated by others.

Four Pinocchios

(About our rating scale)

Send us facts to check by filling out this form

Follow The Fact Checker on Twitter and friend us on Facebook

Previous fact checks on human trafficking statistics:

The Four-Pinocchio claim that ‘on average, girls first become victims of sex trafficking at 13 years old’

The bogus claim that 300,000 U.S. children are ‘at risk’ of sexual exploitation

The false claim that human trafficking is a ‘$9.5 billion business’ in the United States