An icon of a shield to signify scholarship in violence affecting women, families, and individuals.First, former litigator, emergency nurse, and now PhD candidate Simone Jaeckl wants you to know what sex trafficking is not:

a problem typically involving foreign children occurring in faraway places. A phenomenon involving teens who “consent.” Routinely prosecuted. Distinct from child abuse.

Sex trafficking of children—defined as the sexual abuse of a minor for economic gain—occurs when anyone receives anything of value as a result of a sex act involving a minor, even if the minor was not forced, defrauded, or coerced. It can include stripping, prostitution, and pornography, but also so-called “survival sex”—sex in exchange for basic needs, such as food or housing.

Sex-trafficked minors are always victims; never prostitutes.

"School nurses readily gain kids’ trust because they have open-door policies. Kids don’t only come in because they’re sick, or to pick up meds, but also just to chat.”

PhD candidate Simone Jaeckl's dissertation focuses on arming school nurses in the fight against child sex trafficking

While precise data on the number of American children who are sex trafficked each year are scarce—due to the nature of the crime, the stigma and shame its victims feel, as well as inconsistent data collection and a lack of a centralized database—some facts are quite clear: sex trafficking happens in cities, suburbs, and rural areas across all 50 states; the vast majority of child victims are U.S. citizens; almost nine in 10 are girls between the ages of 12 and 18; and while some victims experience homelessness or are part of the foster care system, many others live at home with at least one parent and get “recruited” in schools, in their communities, and online. Traffickers—male and female—are peers, family members, acquaintances, or, less typically, strangers. 

As a teenager, Jaeckl learned that a childhood friend was sold for sex. As a 19-year-old fashion model, some of her peers were similarly victimized. After law school, she prosecuted sex criminals before becoming an emergency room nurse and encountering sexually abused and likely sex-trafficked women and girls. Now, as a doctoral candidate and researcher who's earned funding from the Sahm Family Foundation, she’ll use nursing science to explore sex trafficking risk factors and develop interventions and prevention strategies to arm school nurses in the fight.

School nurses could play a pivotal role in victim identification and prevention efforts, Jaeckl said, given that most sex-trafficked children are initially victimized between age 11 and 15, and still attend school. School nurses readily gain kids’ trust because “they have open-door policies,” Jaeckl explained. “Kids don’t only come in because they’re sick, or to pick up meds, but also just to chat.”


The average age at which sex trafficked children are typically victimized

Too, school nurses are uniquely positioned to note kids’ acute and chronic physical and mental health conditions that may raise suspicion of sex trafficking, including chronic stomach aches, recurrent urinary tract infections, or sexually transmitted infections. They may perceive shifts in kids’ affect and behavior that might indicate depression, anxiety, or self-harm as a consequence of being sex-trafficked, note changes in their appearance, observe a child’s clutch on a hotel keycard, or possession of multiple cell phones, a common control strategy traffickers use. As mandated reporters, school nurses are also well-positioned confidants and connections to resources without which a child’s victimization might continue unnoticed and unreported. Without help from trusted adults, sex trafficked kids are traumatized, Jaeckl said—precisely why timely interventions in the steady, caring environment schools offer are so critical.

Through this fall and winter, Jaeckl’s dissertation work—developed through expansive interviews with 25 school nurses across Virginia—will bring into focus systems’ preparedness to deal with sex trafficking in a crucial moment. With most schools across the country now reopen after being shuttered during the pandemic, school nurses are essential to the fight against child sex trafficking because “if somebody in school has their eyes on these kids, and that somebody knows exactly what to look for, we have a pretty good chance to keep more children both safe and healthy.”

And while it’s possible for victims to recover, the road to healing is steep. Once you’ve been trafficked for sex as a child, “to trust in people again, to believe in life, and to get a fair chance and start life as an adult is very difficult,” said Jaeckl. “It’s therefore up to us—as healthcare providers, as schools—to make that happen, to give these kids a chance.”

From the Fall 2021 Virginia Nursing Legacy.