Trafficking in the US Foster Care System

Exploitation of the most vulnerable.

By Alexandra Walker-Jones.

The Reality

Based on estimates from the database of The Human Trafficking Search, there are over 300,000 minors currently involved in sex trafficking within the United States. As the world’s fastest growing form of organized crime, and the most common type of slavery that exists today, sexual trafficking is one of the most under-detected and overlooked crimes against children within the United States. So why is no-one talking about it?

To begin, it seems there are many misconceptions surrounding the issue of sexual slavery, especially when it comes to accurate portrayal within the media. As a society, it is often assumed that sex trafficking takes place mostly overseas, and we picture variations of what is shown to us on television and film. Though the scenarios depicted in Hollywood are not impossible, it is important to realize that they are not, for the most part, reality.

In truth, the research tells us that it is primarily the young, less-educated, and lower-classes that are most heavily impacted by sex trafficking. Of the 300,000 total children currently being trafficked within the US, between 70-80% are legally within the custody of the state. In other words, there are approximately 210,000 – 240,000 foster kids currently being used for sexual slavery within the very system designed to keep them safe. In fact, as a result of the overwhelmingly high statistics, it seems that the foster care system is, in itself, one of the highest factors that puts a child at risk of being sexually trafficked.

Risk Factors

Many of the reasons children are placed into the care of the state to begin with, are also factors that make them more likely to be preyed upon sexually. These include past experience of trauma, psychological, physical and sexual abuse, as well as neglect. Often times these factors are cyclical, meaning they often lead from one to the other, and are reinforced through a compounding effect. Trafficking often begins with an introduction to the abusive industry via a fellow housemate or care giver.

Dependency on what has been conceptualized as ‘survival sex,’ becomes pertinent when children feel they need to trade sex in order to have their basic care needs met, something all too common within a care system that exists to serve the disadvantaged. Psychologically speaking, children in positions of instability, such as those within the state welfare system, often lack support and specific attention. They are all too easily manipulated and preyed upon by child sex traffickers, with research on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST) suggesting that adolescents are approached by traffickers within 48 hours of being on the streets.

A global analysis of Human Trafficking published in the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare states that human trafficking, especially involving the use of women and children, has one of the highest profit margins and lowest risks out of all types of illegal activity. The average age of girls becoming victims is between 12 and 14, while for boys and transgendered teens the range falls between 11 and 13. The industry of selling minors for sex is considered highly profitable, and relies upon the ability to re-sell and re-use these children, who are regarded as commodities. As a result of the limited legal and social protection of children vulnerable to sex trafficking, there is a term used by researchers to classify homeless children, runaways and those involved in the foster care system alike; The term, “throwaway children,” is what we have chosen to label the 18,000 foster children that annually disappear from their homes. We use a term that, by definition, illustrates our lack of hope for these children’s return.

Legal Protections or Lack Thereof

In 2014, as decided by federal law, it became a legal requirement for agencies to report a child missing within 24 hours of their disappearance. Not only is it baffling why this law has only come into existence within the last decade, but additionally, since the introduction of the requirement, reports have more than doubled. This implies and affirms, that prior to this enforcement, large numbers of missing children went unreported and unnoticed.

What’s more, is that within the State of Arizona, the case of a missing foster child can be closed a mere 6 months after their disappearance, meaning there is no longer any legal system to continue the search for them. This 6-month case-closed status provides an open door for predators and sex traffickers to exploit minors indefinitely, provided they keep them hidden for half a year.

There are cases where relatives and previous foster parents continue to fight singlehandedly for the return of their loved one, however, in most cases these children are fending for themselves. With no parents to protect them, the responsibility is left up to the State. However, multiple short-comings on behalf of legal regulation and social welfare education and training mean that physical security for these children is barely existent. The academia on DMST states that a large portion of the issues surrounding the legislation of child exploitation have to do with a lack of education (both public and professional), as well as a skewed perception of what sexual slavery looks like. All too often it is the case that victims of underage forced prostitution are not seen as victims, with research suggesting that for every 10 victims, at least 4 will be classified as juvenile delinquents. They will receive criminal charges instead of support and protection.

These children are heavily manipulated and, in turn, made fearful of cooperating with law enforcement even after they are found, commonly leading to their vilification. It is not rare for minors to be charged and/or arrested for prostitution before they have even legally reached the age of sexual consent. Within the welfare system, there also does not exist a standardized model for therapists and councilors to deal with victims of sex trafficking. This applies for both the prevention of exploitation within the foster homes as well as trauma treatment/care for the aftermath. The result of these shortcomings is even further distressing for victims and there must be something done about it.

Steps towards a Solution

Professionals working with children in social care, mental health, medical care and educational settings should be given the training and specific tools for recognizing and dealing with potential sex trafficking victims. Gaps within the law pertaining to child exploitation need to be addressed, as well as the establishment of support programmes and the nation-wide implementation of sex trafficking-specific models of therapy. For parents and guardians, keeping up to date with local sex offender registries can prove to be critical. The 300,000 minors currently involved in sex trafficking within the United States are depending on adults to defend and protect them.

There is no such thing as a throwaway child.


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