Written by Dotti Groover-Skipper, Director of Anti-Trafficking Initiatives, NOMORE Foundation
Children and youth in foster care are the most vulnerable demographic to human trafficking in the United States. It is estimated that 60% of all child sex trafficking victims have histories in the child welfare system. Youth without stable families are particularly vulnerable to being exploited by traffickers who are targeting and recruiting youth directly from foster care, group homes, and residential placements.
Why is it that foster youth become victims at such a disproportionate rate to their peers? The reason youth in care are victimized has nothing to do with the child welfare system itself. Youth are often vulnerable due to the reasons they were referred to child welfare in the first place. The connection between human trafficking and foster care may be a result of factors such as homelessness, disconnectedness from family, lack of documentation, and identifying as LGBTQ+, conditions that have shown to increase vulnerability for youth.
When a predator is scoping out potential foster youth to target for trafficking, they manipulate them by mimicking the love and dependability the foster youth feel they have lost in the system. Because most foster youth are not prepared to reject the false projections of security and personal investment that an exploiter may promise, the foster care system becomes a playground for opportunists to impose their will on impressionable youth. Young adults who have aged out of the foster system often serve as a pipeline into homelessness and commercial sexual exploitation
As overwhelming as the issue of human trafficking is and as paralyzing as it may feel, there are many things that you can do to combat this.
As a community member:
- Connect with families in need to prevent children from entering foster care in the first place. Programs that address housing instability, food insecurity, substance abuse, and domestic violence have an integral connection to both the issues of foster care and human trafficking. Ask the agencies serving in your community how you can help.
- Become knowledgeable about what trafficking looks like in your city and share that information with the youth, caregivers, and service providers in your area. www.sharedhope.org is a great educational resource.
Talk to the young people in your life about internet safety. Caregivers should monitor their children’s communications and social media accounts closely. Traffickers often utilize social media to recruit and groom victims. The information that teens share about themselves online can easily be used by traffickers either to create a false sense of connection in conversation or to blackmail the youth into cooperation. Utilize tools from NetSmartz at https://www.missingkids.org/netsmartz/home created for kids, teens, and parents.
- Consider becoming a foster parent or a respite provider for foster families in your community. If you are not able to open your home, there are many other ways to support foster families. Dropping off a meal, running an errand, or helping with housework are greatly appreciated.
- Become a Court Appointed Special Advocate who are community members trained to become advocates on behalf of abused and neglected children. A child with a CASA is more likely to find a safe and permanent home, is half as likely to re-enter foster care, is more likely to pass all of their classes, and will receive more needed services than a child who does not have a CASA.
As a foster parent:
- Learn the indicators that matter to your fostered and adopted youth as individuals. Does your teen seek out affection? Do your youth’s triggers make him or her feel pushed to run away? Is financial security or the idea of travel a large factor for your youth? Understand what matters to the youth in your care and help them find safe and healthy ways to achieve their goals so that they do not become vulnerable to a trafficker who could take advantage of their enthusiasm.
- Understand the history of the children placed in your care. Human trafficking, if it is reported, is usually disclosed as rape or incest. It is critical to believe what the youth is telling you, and then to work with the proper authorities to rule human trafficking out instead of ruling it in later. Because human trafficking victims require specialized behavioral and medical services, it is important to distinguish this abuse from other types of abuse or sexual assault. Additionally, a history of sexual assault, itself, is a vulnerability for human trafficking.
Youth in foster care should never experience the horrors of human trafficking. As community members, foster and forever families, caseworkers, and concerned citizens, there is much that we can do to protect the youth in our care and to prevent human trafficking from happening in the first place.
Note: Human trafficking is the sale of a person for sex or labor in exchange for something of value, such as money, protection, or shelter. Traffickers exploit the vulnerabilities of others (like poverty, trauma, abuse, or homelessness) for financial profit.
Source: “Breaking The Cycle” by Arzo Yusuf – filmmaker 2019; Fostering Families Today-November/December 2017 Karissa Tillotson, LMSW