By Tori Curbelo and Carolina Lenzo
“Make money not friends” read the shirt of a man facing sex trafficking charges in the Manhattan Supreme Court in February.1 What is more appalling than the shirt is that this confident man is not just a trafficker, but the husband of a woman who was designated by the state to foster two girls. Seemingly unimaginable, the New York Post reported that this couple trafficked the two girls who were in the wife’s care. Instead of providing a foster home, they almost immediately placed these girls into the commercial sex industry. The wife lied to the state about living with Kareem, a convicted sex offender, and trafficked not only their two foster children but many other innocent girls as well.
According to the National Foster Youth Institute, it’s estimated that 60 percent of child sex trafficking victims have a history in the child welfare system. Why is there a link between human trafficking and the foster care system to begin with, and how do we take preventive measures to mitigate this link?
If there’s one thing we share, it’s basic needs. We all need a home in which to live, a sense of security, and a family. Some children circulate from home to home without ever receiving a sense of stability or normalcy. This is what is meant by statements such as, “children in foster care are vulnerable to trafficking.” It is not inherently related to the foster children themselves, but the circumstances in which they grow up that exploiters can take advantage of.
Risk factors and vulnerabilities:
● History with the child welfare system
● Domestic violence
● Chronically running away from home
● Experiences of abuse and neglect
● Lack of emotional connections
● Substance use
● Mental health
Sexual abuse is another risk factor: 70 to 90 percent of commercially sexually exploited youth have a history of sexual abuse.2 Many children in the foster system have lived through these listed experiences, leading them to be susceptible to manipulation, coercion, or force. Running away from court-ordered care or placements statistically increases the risk of child trafficking, as these steps hinder children from gaining a safe support system that mitigates risks of trafficking.3 Due to the lack of resources and basic items such as housing and food, runaway foster youths are incredibly vulnerable to trafficking, as foster youths usually have fewer resources and family relationships to fall back on while running away.
Unfortunately, data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services illustrates just how prevalent running away from the foster system is. Almost half of older youth in foster care have run away at least once, and this behavior is more common with girls, youth with histories of substance use disorders, and those with mental health issues.4 Running away from foster care can be traced to two types of risk factors: push and pull. Push factors, categorized as a youth running from something, include violence, unsafe housing, or restrictive environments (for example, the children are highly monitored in phone calls or how they spend free time. Pull factors, characterized as a youth being drawn to something, include gaining connections with a community of origin or gaining a sense of independence separate from the foster care system.5
In order to end this dangerous link between the foster care system and human trafficking, child welfare agencies must take steps to reduce push and pull runaway behaviors and ensure children in foster care feel safe and supported in their environments. Welfare agencies must collaborate with law enforcement to find runaway and missing youth while also ensuring children are protected from potential trafficking situations once they return from running away. Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws that require training on human trafficking for child welfare professionals, but until these baseline requirements are met in all 50 states, much work needs to be done.6 Likewise, screening tools to assess whether children have been or are susceptible to trafficking are present in just 24 states’ child welfare agencies and task forces. Furthermore, none of these tools have undergone studies to see whether they actually give accurate results for the child welfare population.
Specialized case management, service responses for trafficking survivors, and trafficking screening are all areas of the child welfare system that must be expanded and invested in to secure the safety of vulnerable youth. We must also continue to advocate for protective policies for youth; below are some that have been advocated for thus far. Child welfare agencies also cannot treat issues as one-off incidents or accidents but as a realistic threat to children who deserve to be in homes free of exploitation. State governments need to prioritize the graveness of stories such as what has just happened in New York.
● The Bringing Missing Children Home Act: In the Bringing Missing Children Home Act of the larger Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (2015), the legislative federal law was amended to ensure that law enforcement agencies coordinate and communicate with social service agencies and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children when a child goes missing from foster care. The NCMEC estimates that of the 17,200 missing-child reports they received in 2021, 19 percent of the victims running from the care of child welfare were likely victims of child sex trafficking.7 The correlation between the foster system and being at risk of trafficking is evident.
● The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act: Authorizes community-based runaway and homeless youth projects to provide temporary shelter and care to runaway or otherwise homeless youth who are in need of shelter, counseling, and aftercare services.8
● Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act: Requires state plans for foster care and adoption assistance to demonstrate that the state agency has developed policies and procedures for identifying, documenting in agency records, and determining appropriate services for any child or youth over whom the state agency has responsibility for placement, care, or supervision who the state has reasonable cause to believe is, or is at risk of being, a victim of sex trafficking or a severe form of trafficking in persons.”9
1. Learn about the strength of your state’s child trafficking laws: https://reportcards.sharedhope.org
Photo by Erika Fletcher on Unsplash
2 Miriam Goodman and Julie Laurence, “Child Trafficking Victims and the State Courts,” in A Guide to Human Trafficking for State Courts (Denver: Human Trafficking and the State Courts Collaborative, 2014) 77–88.
3 Missing Children, State Care, and Child Sex Trafficking
4 Report to Congress: The Child Welfare System Response to Sex Trafficking of Children
5 Administration for Children and Families – HHS
7 National Center for Missing and Exploited Children