Sex Trafficking in Hawai‘i

Arizona State University School of Social Work Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research; Hawaii’i State Commission on the Status of Women

A Serious Family and Community Problem Statewide:More than One-Quarter of Surveyed Individuals Reported Sex Trafficking Experiences; 23% of Victims were Children at Their First Instance of Sex Trafficking

In this Article:

The Problem
The Study
Call to Action
Warning Signs

CFS and partner agencies to work together to educate communities and help survivors heal from trauma

A recent study conducted at Child and Family Service (CFS) has unearthed a shocking and heartbreaking picture of sex trafficking in Hawaiʻi; notably that childhood abuse and serious family and community problems contribute to the vulnerability of being sex trafficked in our state. The Youth Experiences Survey (YES) was developed by Arizona State University (ASU) School of Social Work Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research (STIR) and funded by the Kaimas Foundation. The survey was conducted by CFS with its program participants and the collected data was shared with ASU STIR for evaluation and publication. The survey focused on the sex trafficking experiences of a large group of individuals served by CFS on Oʻahu, Maui, Kauaʻi, Hawaiʻi Island, and Molokai. However, awareness and recognition is the first step toward identifying and eliminating this serious problem. 

“Our social workers and staff tirelessly invest their energy in providing trauma survivors with hope for healing,” said Karen Tan, president and chief executive officer of Child & Family Service. “We have the tools and resources to identify victims of sex trafficking, but we have to implement them properly and with compassion. CFS and many other community organizations are actively working together to react to this issue, respond to survivors and provide them with the help they need to heal, and engage the community to solve this problem in Hawaiʻi. ”

Sex trafficking is defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 as “when a commercial sex act is inducted by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.”  

The six-page survey was conducted over the course of three months to 363 individuals seeking help by trained social workers or support staff of Child & Family Service, the oldest and largest Hawaiʻi –born, family-centered non-profit in the state. Survey results were submitted to the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research (STIR) at Arizona State University for analysis. The goal of the STIR office is to be a central source of research on domestic sex trafficking which will inform the decisions made by those who contact victims and perpetrators of sex trafficking including law enforcement and prosecutors, educators, medical services and social services. The survey asked questions about the participant’s experiences including abuse, substance use, family connections and dysfunctions, homelessness, health and mental health issues, and their sex and labor exploitation experiences.

Key findings of the survey include:

  • Of those identified as sex trafficking survivors, 23 percent reported that they were children when they were first sex trafficked. Further, 25 percent reported that their first sex trafficker was a family member (parent, guardian, sibling, grandfather, or uncle).
  • Age at first sex trafficking experience ranged from four to 55-years old. The average age of first sex trafficking victimization is 21.4 years old.
  • 23 percent of the sex trafficking survivors were first sex trafficked before they turned 18-years old.
  • 64 percent of the sex trafficking survivors identified as being all or some Native Hawaiian; 11.3 percent said they were Native Hawaiian and 52.6 percent reported being part Native Hawaiian.
  • If they were first sex trafficked as a child, their average age was 11.3 years old. The most common sex trafficker identified by the survivors who were under the age of 18 when they were first trafficked was a family member.
  • A family member was identified as the sex trafficker by 25.8 percent of the participants.
  • More than two-thirds of the sex trafficked participants reported having been homeless.

“The data confirms what our community providers have instinctively known – this is a very real problem,” stated Tan. “We are engaging with all the necessary agencies and organizations to collectively address this problem. This study identifies the volume of sex trafficking in our most vulnerable populations and demonstrates the need to respond to this issue immediately and provide much-needed support to survivors. It also identifies a huge gap in our ability as a community to identify and prevent sex trafficking crimes. As a state, we can do more to protect our residents, and we are taking steps forward with our partner agencies and the Honolulu Police Department to do everything we can.”

This survey proves that Hawaiʻi must collaboratively address sex trafficking in its communities before the issue spreads even further. Already CFS’ Tan has met with Honolulu Police Department Chief of Police Susan Ballard, State of Hawaii Department of Human Services Director Pankaj Bhanot, and State of Hawaii Department of Health Child and Adolescent Mental Health Division Acting Division Chief Administrator Scott Shimabukuro, Ph.D. ABPP, to share the data and begin dialog to address and reduce sex trafficking in Hawaiʻi.

“The HPD takes the issue of sex trafficking seriously. If you are a victim of sex trafficking, know someone who is, or if you see suspicious activity, call 911 to report it and get help immediately,” said Police Chief Susan Ballard. “Our officers are trained to identify and investigate trafficking cases.”

“The State of Hawaii Department of Human Services is committed to working on this issue with our partner agencies,” stated Director Pankaj Bhanot. “We recognize this is a growing issue in our state, and we have been working alongside many community and government agencies in order to identify and close gaps in our systems. One child to slip through our system is one child too many. We want to make sure survivors of sex trafficking have the resources they need to recover, and find safety.  And, we want the community to know there are resources available if they suspect someone is a victim of this crime.  We are here to lend support in whatever way we can.” 

Ho`ola Nā Pua (HNP) works daily to prevent sex trafficking and provide care for youth who have been sexually exploited,” said HNP President and Founder Jessica Munoz. Our programs are committed to providing trauma and survivor-informed care for youth and young adults to address the complex experiences made evident by this report. We will continue to work diligently to build partnerships with law enforcement, schools, care providers, governmental and private sectors, and fellow non-profit organizations to address this crime in our community. The research clearly demonstrates the intersection of several of our current systems and the need for more comprehensive screening, identification, and coordinated service delivery. Building capacity across the service delivery and law enforcement sectors is absolutely essential if we want to truly create the systemic changes needed to address the challenge of exploitation and trafficking.”


This study surveyed individuals who were already participants in one or more Child & Family Service programs, and the results were heartbreaking – 26.7 percent (97 individuals) of the 363 participants in the survey reported sex trafficking. Those who reported sex trafficking experiences were 75 percent female, 23 percent male, one percent transgender, and one percent gender non-conforming. While survivors were on each of the five islands, the highest percentage – 45.4 percent – of those reporting were on Oʻahu, followed by 23.7 percent on Maui.

Participants needed to answer “yes” to at least one of three questions in order to be identified as a victim of sex trafficking:

  1. Have you ever been compelled, forced, or coerced to perform a sexual act, including sexual intercourse, oral or anal contact, for the following (please check all that apply): money, food, clothing, drugs, protection, a place to stay, or other?
  2. Do you currently have a person who encourages/pressures/forces you to exchange sexual acts for money, drugs, food, a place to stay, clothing, or protection?
  3. In the past, has anyone encouraged/pressured/forced you to exchange sexual acts for money, drugs, food, a place to stay, clothing, or protection?


If you are a victim of or suspect any sex trafficking activity, call 911 immediately.

To report child trafficking, call the State of Hawaii Department of Human Services Child Trafficking (Child Welfare Services) Hotline at (808) 832-1999 (O‘ahu) or 1-888-398-1188 (Neighbor Islands)

What do you do if you’re worried about someone at risk?

  • Call for help. You can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888, or the Honolulu Police Department.
  • If you believe you may have information about a trafficking situation, you can submit a tip online through the anonymous online reporting form here. However, please note that if the situation is urgent or occurred within the last 24 hours, we would encourage you to call, text, or chat. The information you provide will be reviewed by the National Hotline. All reports are confidential and you may remain anonymous. Interpreters are available via phone call only. 


The Arizona State University School of Social Work Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research (STIR) website has training resources, information, research, and brochures that can be accessed and downloaded for free.

Other Hotlines:


People who are most at risk might be:

  • living in poverty
  • history of sexual abuse
  • family substance/physical abuse
  • individual substance abuse
  • learning disabilities
  • loss of parent/caregiver
  • sexual identity issues
  • lack of support system
  • history of running away
  • involvement with juvenile justice system
  • older boyfriend
  • incarcerated parent
  • signs of physical violence
  • tattoos or branding marks

Warning signs of trafficking could be:

  • suicidal thoughts
  • extreme anger
  • running away
  • guilt and low self-worth
  • self-harm and/or self mutilation
  • multiple sexual partners
  • eating disorders
  • mood swings
  • difficulty forming relationships
  • flashbacks and/or nightmares
  • confusion
  • depression
  • withdrawal and isolation
  • somatic complaints
  • sleep disturbances
  • academic decline
  • dramatic change in behavior
  • truancy or school avoidance
  • substance abuse and overdose
  • antisocial behavior

Physical indicators can be:

  • cigarette burns
  • unusual bruises or scars
  • malnutrition or poor diet
  • dehydration
  • injuries to head and mouth
  • bite marks
  • stab or gunshot wounds
  • bald patches from having hair pulled
  • dental problems
  • tattoos (serves as branding)
  • Officers should be trained to understand trafficking is often affiliated with:
  • truancy
  • gang activity
  • drug sales or drug use (often used to control victims)
  • theft 
  • runaway status offense

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