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Study calls for changes to address child labor trafficking in MD

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Monday, December 18, 2023   

A new study recommends state agencies change their methods to address child labor trafficking.

Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Social Work surveyed child welfare and juvenile justice professionals, and found that 20% reported they have worked with people under 18 who were coerced or controlled by another person or entity for their labor -- and over 40% expect to do so in the future.

Trafficked children are typically forced to do things like domestic service, childcare, food industry and retail work - as well as forced criminal activity such as stealing or selling drugs.

Lead study author Neil Mallon -- a senior research specialist with the Prevention of Adolescent Risks Initiative at the University of Maryland School of Social Work -- said finding hard data to estimate the scale of the problem is difficult.

"Unlike sex trafficking, which is defined as a form of child sexual abuse, labor trafficking is not defined in that sort of way within our child abuse laws," said Mallon. "So, it makes the enforcement of which agency is responsible for investigating, identifying, and providing services to those children a little unclear."

Researchers recommend the state update child abuse laws to define labor trafficking as 'maltreatment,' and forced criminal behavior as 'labor trafficking.'

Study authors also call on Maryland's human and juvenile service agencies to improve screening, reporting, and investigation of at-risk or victimized youth.

Amelia Rubenstein, director of the University's PARI effort and an adjunct professor, said accurately identifying someone in an exploitative labor circumstance is critical - but complicated.

"There's a lot of different information you need to know," said Rubenstein, "about how they're paid, if they're paid, if they're allowed to work, what their working conditions are - in order to determine if it's exploitative, or if it's labor trafficking. "

The report shows how child labor trafficking can include 'debt bondage,' where a person has pledged their labor as payment or collateral on a debt - often as compensation for having been smuggled into the U.S.

These arrangements can be extended indefinitely as smugglers may continue to arbitrarily add interest and fees so the debt can never be repaid.

Children caught in labor trafficking may be subjected to forced criminal activity which can involve being compelled to cultivate, sell or transport drugs, being forced to steal, and transport weapons or stolen goods.

Mallon said when children in these situations enter the juvenile justice system, professionals need to recognize the signs.

"Do we need to kind of shift our lens, the way that we look at juvenile delinquency, to understand that maybe not all of these children are complicit in the labor of crime?" Mallon asked. "And that in some cases, these are kids that are being used and exploited into doing this type of work by the very same elements of force, fraud and coercion that are seen in sex trafficking cases."

The report also calls on the state to provide young people access to meaningful employment opportunities including well-paid internships to build vocational skills.



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