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Hannabeth Franchino-Olsen: Minor sex trafficking of girls with disabilities


June 23, 2020

Hannabeth Franchino-OlsenHannabeth Franchino-Olsen is interested in topics of gender-based violence abroad and within the United States and is particularly focused on violence that impacts adolescents and children. Her current work focuses on domestic minor sex trafficking and adolescent vulnerabilities in populations across the U.S. as well as middle and high school students in North Carolina.

Franchino-Olsen is the first author on a new study, “Minor sex trafficking of girls with disabilities,” published in the International Journal of Human Rights in Healthcare.

How did you become interested in this topic? ​

HFO: I have always been interested in topics of gender-based violence and have been fortunate to work with experts on these topics since arriving at UNC. At the start of my doctoral program, I was very lucky to join an interdisciplinary research team working on the issue of domestic minor sex trafficking, specifically in North Carolina. This gave me the opportunity to really dig into the field, learn from experts and survivors about this topic, and find ways to apply this topic to my research at the CPC.

What did you find most interesting about the results of this research? ​

HFO: I thought it was very interesting that the findings pointed to both types of disability status (physical and cognitive ability) resulting in more sex trafficking for this population of girls. Frequently in the anti-human trafficking field, we consider how marginalization or lack of social capital may create vulnerability that can be exploited and result in trafficking victimization. While previous research had not connected this possible marginalization to disability status, these findings seem to fit that marginalization framework. Girls with physical disabilities or low cognitive abilities may be more marginalized in their communities and subsequently more vulnerable to sex trafficking exploitation.

You found that the odds of minor sex trafficking were higher for those with severe physical disabilities and for those with low cognitive abilities. How can policy and practice address these gaps and help this vulnerable population? ​

HFO: A key element is ensuring that these populations of minors are considered in all policy and practice decisions. By ensuring that the most vulnerable and marginalized minors are protected in policy and prevention efforts, the needs and vulnerabilities of all minors will inherently be met. Additionally, these findings point to the importance of providing minors with health education that includes discussion of sex trafficking, exploitation, and relationship violence, along with information on how to safely access help or resources.

What else remains unknown about this population?

HFO: Quite a bit is still not known about this population. The anti-human trafficking field is new and emerging in many ways, so much more research is needed to understand the nature of the exploitation these minors with disabilities are experiencing. We really only have evidence so far that they are experiencing additional sexual exploitation compared to their peers without disabilities. We don’t know who is exploiting them, the frequency of the exploitation, or if they are able to access help or resources following their exploitation. Much more research is needed with considerable efforts made to ensure the research and findings are survivor-centered and trauma-informed.

What else are you working on? ​

HFO: Lots more on this topic. We have used the Add Health data to investigate these aspects of disability and minor sex trafficking for boys as well and are working on that publication. Additionally, my dissertation work examines the other types of violence across the life course experienced by individuals who are minor sex trafficking survivors. All these projects seek to add nuance to the global field of minor sex trafficking by investigating what is known about minor victims and victimization via sex trafficking.