Human Trafficking Blog

Knowledge is Power: Keeping Colorado’s Youth Safe from Human Trafficking

You probably know that at the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking, we train professionals who may encounter situations of exploitation in their line of work—nurses, doctors, foster care families, educators, police officers, and more. But did you know that we also directly interact with and train youth?

While human trafficking can happen to anyone, youth are more vulnerable than adults. An estimated one in three victims of human trafficking globally  is a child (Source: UNODC). Minors who don’t live with legal guardians, are undocumented, identify as LGBTQIA+, or are experiencing homelessness face an even higher risk. Traffickers target marginalized and vulnerable youth to create a sense of dependency.

Many people are surprised to learn that in Colorado, youth have been identified as victims of human trafficking. Considering the risk factors mentioned above, Denver has a disproportionately large number of youth experiencing homelessness. 40% of youth experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQIA+, compounding their vulnerability (Source: MDHI Youth Homelessness Report). Additionally, agriculture, ranching, and tourism are big industries that draw seasonal and migrant workers to this state, including unaccompanied minors who have been identified in Colorado working in extremely high risk jobs that U.S. laws prohibit young people from working.

Because of the vulnerabilities of human trafficking that youth in Colorado face, our team began engaging with youth directly—at middle and high schools and at Department of Youth Services facilities for incarcerated youth. In 100% of our interactions with youth over the past two years—every single presentation we’ve done—there have been disclosures of violence, including human trafficking. 

Team members Kara Napolitano and Kristina Wilburn lead our training and education program. Keep reading to hear from them about how these programs help keep youth in Colorado safe.

Kristina Wilburn leading an anti-trafficking training

Kristina Wilburn, Associate Manager of Training and Education at the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking, leading an anti-trafficking training.

Anti-trafficking Training in Colorado Classrooms

Because human trafficking training in schools is not yet mandatory in Colorado, it’s up to school administrators and individual district leaders to prioritize this issue for their students. This year, Denver Public Schools began a five-year plan to incorporate human trafficking training for all students and staff. Chaffee County has also added this training into their curriculum, thanks to the work of a grassroots anti-trafficking coalition. Other school districts are considering bringing trafficking content into schools, but without state guidance and funding, it has not yet materialized.

In school settings, we focus on the issues that affect youth and modify each presentation based on the region in Colorado. “For example, we spoke a lot about agriculture in a Fort Morgan middle school, while in Grand Junction, we talked more about housing insecurity and drug use,” says Kara Napolitano, Research and Training Manager at LCHT.

“But in all regions of Colorado, the core curriculum is the same,” Kara continues. In all conversations with youth, we focus on online recruitment and grooming, as we know from the data that it is how most young people are recruited by traffickers today. We stress the fact that anyone can be trafficked, at any age and of any gender, and that it’s never the victim’s fault.

Kristina Wilburn, LCHT’s Associate Manager of Training and Education, adds, “Training is important for youth to increase their awareness by knowing more than just ‘what is human trafficking?’, but who the traffickers are, how to decrease the likelihood of being exploited by knowing traffickers’ recruitment strategies, indicators that someone they care about may be a victim, and how to have informative conversations with friends and family about this crime.”

Quote from Kara Napolitano on anti-human trafficking training

Whenever students are trained, we also require that staff has also been trained, and that there are support staff, such as social workers, on site to provide support to any students who are triggered or who might disclose their own experience. We make it very clear that we are mandatory reporters so that there is transparency for the students. “In 100% of presentations, we have had multiple disclosures of violence, some of which has been trafficking (both labor and sex),” Kara shares. “We listen to the youth and immediately get them the support they need, as well as report these cases to the appropriate authorities.”

We end each presentation by encouraging youth to get involved in the anti-trafficking movement if they would like to. “There are students who decided to organize and create a group or club in which they have specific projects and events at their school and in their community to spread awareness,” Kristina says. “Others advocated for Colorado’s Human Trafficking Hotline with flyers and cards to be available for students and administration at their school.”

Schools are encouraged to train not only their staff members and teachers, but also students’ parents and guardians. “If you have youth in your life, please have conversations with them about online safety and have some protective parameters around social media usage,” Kristina stresses. “Accepting a friend request on social media is one of the ways traffickers groom youth.” It takes an entire community of informed individuals to keep youth safe.

Staff members Kara Napolitano (left) and Kristina Wilburn (right) lead LCHT's anti-trafficking training and outreach to Colorado youth.

Staff members Kara Napolitano (left) and Kristina Wilburn (right) lead LCHT’s anti-trafficking training and outreach to Colorado youth.

Addressing Human Trafficking Misconceptions with Incarcerated Youth

Our other interactions with youth have been with incarcerated youth, ages 12–21 (the legal ages to hold minors in detention in Colorado). By the end of 2025, LCHT plans to reach all the Department of Youth Services facilities in Colorado. 

We first train the staff—including security officers, social workers, educators, administrators, and all other staff members that interact with youth. At these facilities, youth are separated by gender and length of incarceration time into pods. Youth in those pods generally have strong existing relationships with each other. So, we talk to youth in their pods, which allows for more open conversations.

The conversations start by asking the youth what they already know about human trafficking. Our team fills in the blanks about what it is and what it is not. “Youth often rely on trusted adults, caregivers, and peers for information on various topics,” Kristina explains. “Unfortunately, when it comes to the topic of human trafficking, those groups of individuals are passing along incorrect information that they see and/or read on social media and movies.” We discuss common myths, such as that only women and girls experience sex trafficking or that sex trafficking is the only type of human trafficking.

Quote on anti-trafficking training from Kristina Wilburn

“Then, we carefully explain forced criminality and the laws protecting youth against it, which is an eye-opener for many of the youth,” Kara shares. “We tell them about their rights.” Far too many youth are incarcerated for crimes they are forced or coerced to commit for someone else’s—usually an older person’s—financial benefit (Source: “A Case of Mistaken Identity”). In some situations, we’ve been able to refer youth to professionals who can support their cases.

“Because these youth have already had some time to process what has happened to them, alongside the support of mental health professionals, many of them are already aware that they’ve experienced human trafficking—but usually, not all,” says Kara. “From our experience and according to many reports, incarcerated youth have experienced trafficking at extremely high rates. We have had significant disclosures of trafficking from both male and female pods during these sessions, and have been able to provide ongoing support for several youth who have experienced trafficking.”

“One thing we feel confident of is that we are giving these young people language to put to their lived experiences, which we hope will help them on their healing journey,” continues Kara. Our hope is that having language to describe what happened to them and a better understanding of their legal rights will prevent youth who have been trafficked from being exploited again.

Shoes of two kids sitting outside

Empowering Youth to Use Their Voices

Every training and every audience is different, but many of the takeaways are the same: children better understand both labor and sex trafficking and are empowered to use their voice to protect themselves, their peers, and their communities. Youth also learn how to report trafficking if they or someone they know is experiencing it. When requested, we can support youth to report crimes or to find trafficking-specific resources to receive the support they need and deserve. The adults surrounding the youth are also given the tools to understand and support these situations.

“The fact that at each training, there has been at least one youth disclosure of their exploitation or that of a family member or friend is something to be proud of,” Kristina reflects. “The youth can then access services and resources as a survivor of human trafficking. For the youth who are incarcerated, they can relay their disclosure to their attorneys if the criminal charges they are facing are because of illegal activities their trafficker forced or coerced them to commit.”

Furthermore, many youth who have attended trainings want to take immediate action and join the anti-trafficking movement after learning about the crime and its impact. Kristina concludes, “It has been amazing to watch these youth take more initiative with increasing awareness in their communities and recommending that training continues to be facilitated at their schools.” We know that anti-trafficking training for youth is making a difference and bringing us one step closer to our ultimate goal of ending exploitation in Colorado!


Do you work with youth? Book a training with the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking for your team or for the youth you work with. Find out more about human trafficking in Colorado, how to identify potential situations of exploitation, and how to safely intervene when you suspect it’s taking place.