The U.S. government is in its second decade of fighting global human trafficking, including the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) by evaluating how other governments fight these crimes and tying results to financial assistance. More recently, our government has turned its attention to domestic CSEC. Yet, as with other forms of child sexual abuse, the most common tactic is to wait for harm to occur and then punish offenders and try to help victims.

Instead of addressing CSEC as a public health problem that has causes and can be prevented — which it can — we are in a constant state of reaction that never gets us ahead of the problem.

At the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse, we are doing the research that we hope will inform prevention measures and spark policy-makers to take a public health approach to ending child sexual abuse, which includes the commercial sexual exploitation of children. But of course we are only one part of the equation.

We also need federal, state and city governments willing to commit long-term resources to the development, testing and dissemination of evidenced based prevention strategies that actually lead to reducing the risks our children face.


Last month, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley brought together 400 specialists to continue a dialogue between each department within his state’s government and practitioners, policy makers and researchers on how combat human trafficking in Maryland. This dialogue began with the creation of the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force in 2007. This kind of long-term, multidisciplinary investment is what leads to innovative new strategies and tactics. As one example, Maryland’s Department of Juvenile Services has developed and pilot tested a risk assessment tool for identifying boys and girls victimized by trafficking who might benefit from specialized services. Similar efforts are underway by the State’s Department of Human Resources and Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Efforts such as these will help to bring about change and may ultimately reduce CSEC and its effects.

Also last month, the Advisory Council on Child Trafficking (ACCT), Goldman Sachs Foundation and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health convened a symposium on trafficking that brought together policy makers, advocates and scholars to identify additional ways in which research can inform child sex trafficking policy and practice.

Today, Sens. Max BaucusMax Sieben BaucusBaucus backing Biden's 2020 bid Bottom line Overnight Defense: McCain honored in Capitol ceremony | Mattis extends border deployment | Trump to embark on four-country trip after midterms MORE (D-Mont.) and Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchTrump administration backs Oracle in Supreme Court battle against Google Timeline: Trump and Romney's rocky relationship Key Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock MORE (R-Utah) are convening a hearing on the state of sex trafficking and the role of child welfare agencies, who will almost certainly play a crucial role in prevention given the vulnerability of children in foster care to sexual abuse, including CSEC, and to other forms of harm. This hearing bodes well for the type of coordinated federal and state response needed to effectively address CSEC in this country.

Those of us focused on preventing child sexual abuse must continue to build partnerships with federal, state and local governments in order to garner the support and resources necessary for the critical work of developing and testing effective  prevention policies.

Child sexual abuse — from the rare cases that involve long-term kidnappings or worse at the hands of strangers, to the far more common cases of abuse perpetrated by family members and friends — is preventable.  But until our governments, researchers and practitioners are partnering to address this as a public health issue, our only course of action will be to wait and respond to the next horrible incident. And when it happens, we’ll wonder the same thing we always do: how could we have prevented this?

Letourneau is the director of the newly launched Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse and an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

This post has been updated at the author's request.