Trauma, Foster Care and Trafficking Often Links in a Heartbreaking Chain

May is National Foster Care Month, and while much work is being done in the foster care system to bring hope to children in out-of-home care, there is an intersectionality between foster care and trafficking. We seek to shine a light on this topic to better understand the challenges faced by vulnerable youth and work toward their protection and well-being.

According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, there were approximately 437,500 children in foster care in the United States on September 30, 2020. Of those children, 41% were 5 years old or younger, ages pivotal for cognitive development. More than 1 in 4 foster children remain in foster care for two or more years before being reunited with their families or adopted, while others age out by 21 years old.1

Sadly, growing data is showing that the experience of living in foster care and trafficking instances are linked.

Human Trafficking: An Alarming Reality

Human trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery, is a grave violation of human rights. It involves the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of individuals through force, fraud or coercion for various purposes, such as forced labor, sexual exploitation or involuntary servitude. Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), children under the age of 18 who are induced to engage in commercial sex acts are considered victims of human trafficking, regardless of whether force, fraud or coercion was present.

The Intersectionality

The foster care system and human trafficking often intersect due to the overlapping vulnerabilities faced by children in out-of-home care.

Instability and Lack of Support. Frequent placement changes, disrupted connections and limited emotional support in the foster care system can make children more susceptible to manipulation by traffickers who exploit their longing for stability and belonging.

Limited Resources and Opportunities. Children aging out of foster care often lack stable housing, education, employment and social networks, leaving them vulnerable to traffickers who promise a way out of their dire circumstances through psychological manipulation and financial incentives.

History of Abuse and Trauma. Many children in out-of-home care have experienced abuse or neglect, leaving them with deep emotional scars. Traffickers prey on their vulnerability, using manipulation and coercion to gain control to retain and exploit them.

Runaway and Homelessness. Youth in foster care may run away or become homeless, seeking escape from difficult living situations or due to a lack of connection and belonging in their foster care placement. On the streets, they become targets for traffickers who exploit their vulnerability and offer false promises of safety and support.

Even before children encounter the foster care system, many have experienced extreme traumatic events, including severe violence, sexual abuse, abandonment or the loss of housing. Most commonly, children enter foster care because of:

● Neglect
● Substance misuse by a parent
● Inability of a parent or caregiver to provide care
● Physical abuse
● Domestic violence

These traumas, often cumulative, can have a profound impact on a child’s psychological and physical well-being. Some of the forces that lead to a connection between foster care and trafficking happen before a child even enters the system.A Personal Experience

My life in the foster care system was anything but easy. I was continuously overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork and bureaucracy that I was expected to navigate. Despite the noise of the guidance, support and advocacy that I was receiving, I often felt trapped in a vicious cycle — trying to get my voice heard, but never taken seriously.

During those stressful times, the social workers whom I encountered were supposed to be looking out for me and other children, trying to improve our situation. Unfortunately, they often become the biggest obstacle to getting the help needed.

I was tired of not being heard and desperate to find any professional adult who could truly advocate on my behalf. I needed someone who was willing to listen and provide resources that would enable me to avoid exploitation.

Foster Care and Trafficking Statistics

Traffickers exploit vulnerabilities. Considering the added vulnerability, fewer protections and greater instability for children in the system, it’s not difficult to see why there’s a correlation between foster care and trafficking.

● The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that 19% of the children who ran from the care of social services and were reported missing to NCMEC in 2020 were likely victims of child sex trafficking.2

● Texas’ annual Foster Youth Runaway Report indicates that over the course of a single year, approximately 4.5% (35 youth) of youth on runaway status reported experiencing sex trafficking while away from care. Studies of child welfare administrative data from Illinois and Florida found 17% and 7.4% of youth, respectively, were on runaway status at the time of the recorded trafficking allegation.3

● Studies from New York and Connecticut found that 50% of human trafficking victims were involved with child welfare systems or juvenile justice systems and that 80% of girls involved in human trafficking had been in the child welfare system in the past.4

● A 70-city raid by the FBI in 2013 found that 60% of the children trafficked in those cities were from foster care or group homes.

● In 2012, 86 of the 88 victims of child sex trafficking identified by the state of Connecticut were involved with the child welfare system, and most of them reported experiencing abuse while in foster care or a residential placement.5

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation asked, “What is it about the foster care system that results in or promotes sex trafficking?” The answer is that kids in foster care are uniquely vulnerable to abuse, and traffickers know it.

During those eleven long years I was moved around more times than I could count. The more you move the less stability you have, compared with children who are in intact families. The more I was moved the less contact I had with adults who could advocate on my behalf. These risk factors, according to NCOSE, increase a foster child’s exposure to public spaces and traffickers.

Breaking the Connection between Foster Care and Trafficking

I became a social worker to disrupt the status quo and break barriers that harm vulnerable people, especially children. The social workers of my youth checked a box and moved on without really understanding the true needs and well-being of the children they were assigned to.

For many foster children it’s very difficult to find any hope in a transient environment, but with time and resilience, many manage to gather strength from within and stay focused on the goal — to make it out of the system and avoid the traps that tie foster care and trafficking.

I found solace in the small acts of kindness that I encountered, such as kind words from the few social workers who were invested in my life and small gestures of love and support from the house mother at the group homes I was placed in. These experiences made me acutely aware of how powerful kindness can be, and I believe these are the foundations of hope in a dark place.

As a social worker at LifeWay Network, I am committed to providing a sustainable pathway to recovery through our safe house community living model: economic empowerment, life skills, nontraditional/traditional healing and continuity in community. These community connections help survivors rebuild their lives and pursue their dreams.

Additionally, I’m aware of the importance of research, policy and collaboration with all stakeholders in order to provide effective, sustained and meaningful initiatives to combat human trafficking.At LifeWay Network, we make it our mission to educate the community, including children and youth, about the implications of human trafficking and how vulnerable communities can be at a higher risk of exploitation. By providing this education, LifeWay ensures that children and youth have the skills to identify a potential trafficking situation and where to seek help and support, and adults can identify the protective factors and resources available specifically for children in out-of-home care.

Committed to the protection of minors and children, LifeWay has endorsed the EARN IT Act (Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act) for the second year in a row, to eliminate the online circulation of child sexual abuse material (CSAM).

My ultimate goal is to work with individuals, families and communities to end the exploitation of vulnerable people. I strive to create safer, more supportive communities and systems that are able to recognize and respond to the signs and symptoms of human trafficking.

Through the use of data-driven approaches and working collaboratively with other organizations and government agencies, I am committed to creating long-term solutions that will ultimately eradicate human trafficking and provide hope and healing to those affected by this form of modern slavery.

But the work does not stop here. We need your help and support.

Take Action

      1. Invest in deepening your knowledge and awareness of foster care and human trafficking by reading the reports and guides referenced below:
      2. Spreading awareness and informing people about how they can make a difference is key to a future where no human being is forced, coerced, defrauded, and/or manipulated for someone else’s profit. Learn more about LifeWay’s education program and request a speaking engagement by visiting:

By Marion Kendall, LifeWay Network Executive Director

Photo by Ray Piedra,

1 Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2021). Foster care statistics 2020. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children’s Bureau.
5 The 2012 Connecticut Department of Children and Families Annual Report, p. 38.