At the beginning of every human trafficking story, there is one common theme: a level of vulnerability. Vulnerability takes many forms; it can range from something as simple as a young girl walking home alone to a mother who is starving trying to make ends meet for her family.
In America, one of the populations most vulnerable to traffickers remains those who have encountered the revolving door of the foster care system. A loose estimate is that nearly 60% of child sex trafficking victims have been involved with the child welfare system.
A Broken System
Why are those in foster care so at risk? Primarily, because children have already had to transition between living environments that are often dangerous, toxic and traumatic. They may be placed with families who do not have the resources to provide for them and likely do not have a solid support system in place. On an emotional level, these factors make it easier for traffickers to manipulate individuals who are desperately seeking support, attention or stability or love.
While this is an urgent need, there are a number of things states can do to improve their systems and decrease the vulnerability of within them.
What Can Be Done?
Below are seven examples of how to strengthen our foster care system in the United States and protect the children it is meant to serve.
- Aging Out Policies: When a child turns 18, they are often “aged out” of the foster care system. They are then forced to enter the world without a support system, and commonly face barriers such as homelessness, lack of education, low income & financial instability. These vulnerabilities make individuals vulnerable to engaging in “survival sex” — where they exchange sex to have their basic needs met. Very often, this quickly transitions into trafficking of the person for sex against their will. If states extend the benefits of foster care beyond the age of 18, more of a security net would exist to protect young people from the dangers of trafficking.
- Kinship Care: Kinship care allows children to be fostered with people they are familiar with, but are not related to. The already established relationship between the child and family decreases the risk that the child will be moved from placement to placement. In turn, this reduces to likelihood of maltreatment and the child running away, as well as has proven to lessen behavioral issues.
- Relevant Foster Care Provisions: Appropriate foster care provisions ensure there are standards for foster home placements. These standards include background checks, established ground for foster parent disqualification, and relevant and effective training.
- Human Trafficking Task Forces: Many states are benefiting from the implementation of statewide task forces designated to fight human trafficking within their own communities.
- LGBTQI+ Protections: Approximately 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQI+. So often without a support system, these youth are at the highest risk for sexual exploitation, violence and abuse. States with specific protections for gender and sexuality-based discrimination can help in preventing human trafficking.
- Relevant Anti-Trafficking Provisions: State laws should be structured so that a minor cannot be prosecuted for being trafficked. For example, anyone engaged in commercial sex under the age of 18 is automatically considered a trafficking victim by international law; however, in some states these youth can be prosecuted for prostitution. Labeling a survivor a criminal compromises the trajectory of their life and instills a fear of law enforcement.
- Mandatory State Reporting Laws: Because of how at-risk those in foster care are, submitting and tracking missing persons reports should be a required state procedure. Without a report filed, law enforcement does not have knowledge of which children and youth are in danger. State reporting laws, in partnership with educated foster parents, can assist in finding missing children before it is too late.
When we take care of those who are most vulnerable, such as those in the foster care system, we are actively combating human trafficking. To continue this fight, we have to create conversation, legislation, protocols, and communities that support and protect the people who need it most.