The Vulnerability of Youth

Children and youth populations—domestically and internationally—are especially susceptible to human trafficking dangers due to complex societal factors. A lack of awareness about child trafficking, community norms, and the challenges youth face recognizing red flags all contribute to their high risk compared to adults.  Social factors that can increase the vulnerability of children and youth are under-resourced schools, commercial sex being common in the area, family dysfunction, caregiver separation, and physical and sexual abuse. The rise of social media usage in recent years has also increased the likelihood of youth meeting and communicating with traffickers online. Finally, being part of another vulnerable group, such as the LGBTQ+ or immigrant communities, can also contribute to an individual’s risk for exploitation. One youth population that is particularly at-risk is those in foster and orphan care systems, both in the United States and internationally.

Human Trafficking & Foster Care in United States

Traffickers and abusers often target the most vulnerable individuals in society, and in the United States, this often includes youth in the foster care system. Traffickers will prey upon a young person’s lack of a support system and manipulate them through promises of love and safety. It is common for children in the foster care system to have experienced trauma and abuse, which can also contribute to the probability of being exploited. A history of abuse can cause youth to normalize unhealthy relationships, if this is all they have observed and known. The foster care system can cause many to desire consistency and security, a void that traffickers will quickly step into by claiming to fill these roles.

How do traffickers encounter these youth? One common way is through the high rates of youth who run away from foster placements and experience homelessness. Reports show that traffickers can meet youth in many public settings, including shopping malls, parks, social media apps, and even at school. One consistent tactic of those looking to exploit others is a process of gaining an individual’s trust – they can pose as romantic partners or close friends and may even offer to provide gifts or necessities like housing. Because youth may view their trafficker as a “protector,” it can be difficult for them to leave these circumstances.

Human Trafficking & International Orphan Care

When we examine child trafficking from an international perspective, it is clear many countries struggle to serve or place all children in need of homes. International charity Lumos reports an estimated 5.4 million children worldwide live in institutions that cannot meet their needs, exposing them to multiple forms of exploitation and harm. Orphanages can bring in large amounts of funding, which can give people financial incentive to operate them, no matter the conditions. Often, these institutions will be overcrowded and lack basic necessities. The 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report includes detailed accounts of trafficking and exploitation that many children living in orphanages are forced to endure – from sex trafficking to forced labor and begging

One commonplace practice found in the TIP report was the recruitment of vulnerable children – who often have families struggling to make ends meet. The families are promised the children’s lives will be better if they go to the homes, however, these promises are not kept. Once in an orphanage, children may be housed in poor conditions, exposed to a continuous cycle of unvetted or unqualified volunteers, deprived of proper healthcare and schooling, or exposed to risk factors for trafficking and exploitation.

How to Protect Youth from Exploitation

In the United States, it is important child service providers are informed on the signs of exploitation and the increased risk for children and youth in foster care. Trauma-informed practices and an understanding of a child’s history are critical to prevention and identification efforts. Expensive items not purchased by a child’s caregiver, signs of physical or emotional abuse, overly sexualized behavior in young children, and reports of a controlling relationship can all be red flag indicators of exploitation. Training and education for child service providers on how to identify these situations and appropriately intervene would greatly benefit the lives of youth in the foster care system.

Internationally, these same practices are important to pay attention to when supporting programs for children. Making informed decisions by researching organizations helps ensure we are not supporting those profiting from exploitation. Understanding the influence that global events have on the vulnerability of children and families is also critical. As an example, the recent displacement of Ukrainian families has the potential to increase the trafficking and exploitation of children when families are separated or facing dangerous migration circumstances. The global community also needs to be aware of risk factors and warning signs of possible abuse or trafficking.

Education can be one of the most effective ways to prevent human trafficking, especially within foster care and international orphan care systems. This why Free for Life International was excited to host a first-of-its-kind event: the Intersection of Human Trafficking and Orphan & Foster Care Conference. On May 26th, 2022, the conference brought together experts from domestic and international child protection, law enforcement, and anti-human trafficking, and it is free and open to the global community. You can learn more about  about the event and request the recording here

Mallory Beach

Mallory Beach

Spring 2022 Intern

Mallory is one of Free for Life’s interns for the Spring 2022 term. She will be helping conduct research and supporting the other members of the team in all their tasks. Mallory is incredibly passionate about human rights work and believes that all people are deserving of the freedom to live fulfilling and vibrant lives; she wants to work in the nonprofit world for the rest of her career, specifically working in the women’s rights field. She is currently pursuing a degree at Belmont University, majoring in Faith and Social Justice with minors in Sociology and Public Relations. Mallory is originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, but loves living in Nashville. In her free time, she loves caring for her many plants, working out, or reading a good fiction book.

watch the intersection of human trafficking & orphan and foster care conference!