Promising Practices for Sexually Exploited Youth: A Scoping Review

About the project

Currently, the state of knowledge on the effectiveness of intervention practices for sexually exploited youth is still in an embryonic stage (O’Brien et al., 2022). Due to the urgency felt in the field, however, professionals end up implementing many practices anyway. Felner and Dubois (2017) assert that these practices are often implemented too quickly, with professionals failing to solidly define or plan how to set up or apply them. Graham and his colleagues (2019) have also sounded the alarm, stating that despite practitioners’ best intentions, a failure to integrate scientific knowledge into practices can lead to interventions that are ineffective, or even harmful. It is therefore important to synthesize the existing studies on intervention practices for sexually exploited youth so that we can situate the current state of knowledge and shed light on promising practices that are starting to take shape.

This scoping review was done using the PRISMA-ScR checklist. Ten databases were consulted using EBSCO and ProQuest interfaces, and a total of 27 studies were selected. We analyzed these studies in order to synthesize knowledge and identify general and specific characteristics in the content and delivery of psychosocial intervention practices for sexually exploited youth.

Key findings

  • Increasing numbers of psychosocial intervention programs for sexually exploited minors have been implemented in organizations worldwide and documented in scientific journals, mainly in the United States and the United Kingdom.
  • Each study details a specific program that was implemented in a specific practice setting. Intervention programs are local initiatives and have not yet been scaled up.
  • The programs mostly aim to reduce the trauma of sexual exploitation, including its impact on youths’ cognitive, emotional, relational, identify, behavioural and somatic development.
  • Intervention methods for these programs vary. There are individual and group interventions, but few family interventions.
  • Most programs take the form of psychoeducational workshops or therapy focused on recovery and reconstruction of self. Other programs include a mentorship component offered by survivors of sexual exploitation. Some programs use the arts, music, dance or yoga.
  • Fewer than a quarter of the studies surveyed have a research framework for assessing any pre- or post-treatment changes. Most of the studies present a case study or findings from descriptive interviews conducted with the youth or professionals who participated in the intervention program.
  • Although findings are still highly exploratory regarding the effectiveness of intervention programs for sexually exploited minors, it is possible to observe trends in the beneficial effects of different programs. Trauma-based cognitive-behavioural therapy and art-based interventions are promising for addressing youths’ needs. Additionally, mentoring programs that seek input from survivors of sexual exploitation have proven beneficial for participants, as these mentors offer a source of support and are uniquely positioned to understand survivors’ situations.
  • Many studies highlight the importance of a comprehensive, multidisciplinary and collaborative approach that brings together social services, health professionals and community organizations to adequately address the multiple needs of sexually exploited youth and effectively fight sexual exploitation of minors by offering them a wide range of services.

Policy implications

Canada does not have much data on the effectiveness of psychosocial intervention programs for sexually exploited minors.

  • As these individuals are incredibly vulnerable and experiencing major instability in their lives, it has proven particularly difficult to gather longitudinal data from them.
  • Research and assessment strategies should be integrated into research projects conducted in partnership with the academic community by organizations who have a mandate to intervene with sexually exploited youth. These collaborative efforts could help rapidly modernize current practices, in addition to helping develop and implement new evidence based programs.
  • Policy makers should pay special attention to integrating scientific knowledge into practice by encouraging continuing education and the sharing of promising practices between intervention professionals in order to improve the quality and effectiveness of services offered to sexually exploited youth.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Nadine Lanctôt, principal investigator, associate professor, Département de psychoéducation, Université de Sherbrooke:

Roxane Perrin-Plouffe, research coordinator, Département de psychoéducation, Université de Sherbrooke:

Denis Lafortune, full professor, École de criminologie, Université de Montréal:

Sophie Couture, assistant professor, Département de psychoéducation, Université de Sherbrooke:

Delphine Collin-Vézina, associate professor, School of Social Work, McGill University:

Katherine Pascuzzo, assistant professor, Département de psychoéducation, Université de Sherbrooke:

Marie-Pierre Villeneuve, assistant professor, Département de psychoeducation, Université de Sherbrooke,

Joan A. Reid, University of South Florida,

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