Homeless Children have exceptional vulnerabilities to exploitation!

Children are a growing segment of the homeless population. Moreover, these children have a high vulnerability to abuse and potential exploitation as well as victimization. This article is designed to reveal the prevalence of child abuse and victimization; to help you recognize the signs of child abuse as well as to take an active role in addressing the issue.

Trauma is real and prevalent in the lives of homeless children. The National Center Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) says that homelessness makes families more vulnerable to physical and sexual assault, witnessing violence, or to abrupt separation. These stresses compound homelessness and can impede recovery due to ongoing traumatic reminders and challenges. http://www.nctsnet.org/

Children are particularly vulnerable and may demonstrate both physical and mental symptoms. These children’s physical issues and complicated lives may actually serve to mask an abusive situation. Additionally, they are often not treated medically or psychologically due to lack of resources or access to care. The NCTSN indicates that homeless children are:

•  sick at twice the rate of other children.  Specifically, they have twice as many ear infections, four times the rate of asthma, and five times more diarrhea/ stomach problems.

•  hungry twice as often

•  untreated for emotional issues, specifically one-fifth of homeless preschoolers have emotional problems serious enough to require professional care, but less than one-third receive any treatment.

twice as likely to repeat a grade

twice as likely to have learning disabilities

three times more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems and by eight years old, one in three has a major mental disorder.

experiencing anxiety, depression, or withdrawal at 50% as compared to 18% of non-homeless.

• at greater risk not only due to these challenges in themselves but may act as “secondary adversities,” putting a child at greater risk for trauma reactions and making recovery difficult.

For a full discussion or the facts on trauma and homeless children, see this article:


Children who have been sexually abused may display a range of emotional and behavioral reactions characteristic of children who have experienced trauma. These reactions include:

• Increased occurrence of nightmares or other sleeping difficulties

• Withdrawn behavior

• Angry outbursts

• Anxiety

• Depression

• New words for private body parts or sexualized language inappropriate for their age

• Sexual activity with toys or other children

• Not wanting to be left alone with a particular individual(s)

Many sexually abused children exhibit behavioral and emotional changes, while others do not. It is critical to focus on recognition of symptom, but it is equally important to address prevention and empowering communication. Prevention and communication is important for both parents and children. Discussions should include body safety, healthy body boundaries, and by empowering both to use open communication about sexual matters.

Children often will not tell about sexual abuse. Here are few reasons children do not disclose about sexual abused:

• Threats of bodily harm (to the child and/or the child’s family – especially siblings)

• Fear of being removed from the home (even if the abuser is a family member) or of their telling being the cause of the family breaking up.

• Fear of not being believed

• Shame, guilt, or even being blamed for the incidence

Adapted from: http://www.nctsn.org/trauma-types/sexual-abuse

After recognizing the trauma and physical manifestation of possible issues in a child’s life, the next step must include a response. Talking to children about their personal space and how people should respect their bodies is an important prevention tool. However, any plan to undertake such education and communication must include a plan to respond if a child who has been a victim makes an “outcry” of abuse.  You may be the only person who hears, sees, understands, and can speak up on behalf of this child. Moreover, if you are an authority in this child’s life you are required by law to report the alleged abuse.

There are resources available to learn how to respond. Prevention and options for a response can be taught to parents and workers who are in contact with these children through the following sources:

  • www.stopitnow.org – for parents and others in the lives of children in a variety of settings.
  • Online exposure to pornography and violence are also problematic for this generation and there are excellent resources available to address this at www.internetsafety101.org and at www.ncmec.org (see NetSmartz). A discussion of predatory behaviors online must be included in any plan of education.
  • http://hffbooks.com/Lets_Talk_Book_Information.html – talking to children in age appropriate ways.
  • Darkness to Light has a very good, thorough online training for only $10. Find the training and more information on how to host a live group training session through the website: Darkness to Light .

Consider it a challenge to take the Darkness to Light training to develop your own personal, a family, and an organizational plan to actively respond to the issues. In addition, be empowered yourself and know how to equip children to recognize and respond to a predator and to take definitive action to address it!

Next steps would include developing a program with homeless children that develop assets of resiliency against the circumstances they face. Learn more about asset development http://www.search-institute.org/developmental-assets and how to implement a strategy to help the children.

As children age their early abuse issues are often compounded by new freedoms, rebellion to their homelessness, and to their parents, as well as some who will choose to leave a situation that may be overwhelming and abusive. The National Network for Youth states “Runaway and homeless youth experience rape and assault rates 2 to 3 times higher than the general population of youth.” http://www.nn4youth.org/

Trauma and abuse bring substantial threats to children and youth for being commercially sexually exploited.  The estimates for children being sexually exploited who are have run away from home ranges from 30% within 48 hours of leaving home to 90% for those that stay out on the streets for longer periods. (NISMART, 2008 and nn4youth) A national study about the prevalence of sexual exploitation of U.S. children is available at www.sharedhope.org.  Additional information on specific signs of youth involved in commercial sexual exploitation is available to download or request printed copies free at: http://ncfy.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/bought_and_sold.pdf

For more information and a complete discussion of the issues these children and youth face this selected bibliography includes a variety of subjects including physical and mental health as well as chemical dependency issues. The research is somewhat dated but a comprehensive place to start.


Many families and children have experienced trauma before becoming homeless. Moreover, the inherent traumas of homelessness can serve to multiple the traumas or re-traumatize a child. This can place the child in a cycle of vulnerability and tragically often leads to abuse. The damage is physical, psychological, and emotional to the child, their families and to the community.

Engagement of this issue must include education for all persons involved with homeless families, the parents, the children, and the community. Each of those stakeholders must have a plan for prevention and a readiness to respond. The tools of connectivity provided in this article should help to establish a good basis for action.

Understand the Risks  – search for more information  – links to Darkness to Light

These are facts about victimization in the general population. Undoubtedly, the homeless populations victimization may be considerably higher. These indicators are from the Darkness to Light website:

IT IS HIGHLY likely that you know a child who has been or is being abused.

  • Experts estimate that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthdays.
  • 1 in 5 children are sexually solicited while on the Internet.
  • Nearly 70% of all reported sexual assaults (including assaults on adults) occur to children ages 17 and under.
  • The median age for reported sexual abuse is 9 years old.
  • Approximately 20% of the victims of sexual abuse are under age eight.
  • 50% of all victims of forcible sodomy, sexual assault with an object, and forcible fondling are under age twelve.
  • Most child victims never report the abuse.
  • Sexually abused children who keep it a secret or who “tell” and are not believed are at greater risk than the general population for psychological, emotional, social, and physical problems, often lasting into adulthood.
  • It is also likely that you know an abuser. The greatest risk to children doesn’t come from strangers but from friends and family – 30-40% of children are abused by family members.
  • As many as 60% are abused by people the family trusts- abusers frequently try to form a trusting relationship with parents.
  • Nearly 40% are abused by older or larger children.
  • People who abuse children look and act just like every one else. In fact, they often go out of their way to appear trustworthy to gain access to children.
  • Those who sexually abuse children are drawn to settings where they can gain easy access to children, such as sports leagues, faith centers, clubs, and schools.

Other websites available: 

http://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/assets/pdfs/PFA_Families_homelessness.pdf – trauma

http://www.nhchc.org – health care

http://www.nlchp.org – legal issues

http://www.nn4youth.org – national network for youth

http://www.mnhomelesscoalition.org/resources/curriculum/ – lesson plans to teach about homelessness

http://www.endhomelessness.org/content/article/detail/2462/ – public policies



If you need more information or would like to have a training for your organization please contact me via the contact button on the home page: www.tomigrover.com

Photo credit is from Cooperative Baptist Fellowship cover of April/May 2014 www.thefellowship.info