There are over 400,000 kids in the United States child welfare system, more commonly known as foster care. These children and teens typically face myriad barriers, such as the lack of a permanent and stable family, and limited access to educational opportunities. In many cases, children move between multiple placements during their time in foster care, for example starting out living with a relative and then moving to a foster home or group home, contributing to their sense of instability and vulnerability. Children of color are disproportionally represented in the child welfare system and especially vulnerable to poor outcomes.
According to the Darkness to Light Foundation, foster children are 10 times more likely to be sexually abused than children that live with both biological parents. They also have high incidents of running away; per TurnAround, a nonprofit in Maryland working with survivors of sexual violence, 74% of children reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were in the care of social services or foster care when they ran.
This has dark implications for children living within the system. Darkness to Light has found that children with a history of sexual abuse are highly vulnerable to human trafficking: More than 90% of children who are commercially sexually exploited have been sexually abused in the past.
Our Problem Too
While many Americans tend to view human trafficking, including forced labor and sexual exploitation, as a problem in third world countries, it is a significant problem right here in the US. Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline has received reports of 63,380 sex trafficking cases inside the United States. Those are just the reported cases, it is likely that the number is much higher.
People who exploit children and teens often target those who are running away; they prey on kids who do not have a loving, stable family to turn to, manipulating these children into trusting them. Exploiters may also use the children they are trafficking to recruit other children. Traffickers will sometimes send one of their girls into group homes to lure other girls to leave. The children who have been recruited and the traffickers become like a family; traffickers give them attention and gifts, filling a void for these children and leading them into a life of repeated abuses and trauma.
On top of the trauma these children already experience, they are in a precarious position once they “age out” of foster care, meaning they have reached the age limit for the system and are now out on their own. This varies from the ages of 18 to 21 depending on the state. Many kids still have no permanent family by this time and have missed out on critical educational opportunities. Even under the best of circumstances, teens and young adults need a supportive family and/or other resources to complete their education and begin a career pathway; kids who have aged out of care need even more support, yet they are on their own to navigate the adult world.
For those who have been victimized by traffickers, the outlook is grim. When a person is under the age of 18 and engaged in commercial sex or forced labor, you do not have to prove any of the three key elements of trafficking – force, fraud, or coercion. However, people over the age of 18 would have to prove one of these factors was at play if they are caught engaging in commercial sex acts. This means older youth may be at risk of being criminalized, adding to their trauma and barriers to safety and success.
Be the Change
Despite the bleak state of affairs for foster youth and victims of trafficking, there are things we can all do to help:
- Know the red flags of human trafficking – visit Shared Hope International’s website to learn more about what to look out for
- If you suspect human trafficking, call one of these hotlines:
- National Center for Missing & Exploited Children: 1-800-843-5678
- National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888
- Learn about and support efforts to reform the child welfare system – visit the Center for the Study of Social Policy to learn more about this important issue.
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Jean Henningsen is a nonprofit leader with over a decade of experience overseeing programs that help low-income individuals and families access critical resources to set them on a path towards financial stability. She has taken on a range of responsibilities, including grants management, partnership development, and staff supervision. Her robust skill set includes planning, writing, public speaking, budget development, and talent management. She is passionate about empowering women and girls to reach their full potential. She enjoys reading, baking, volunteering, traveling with her husband, and relaxing with her cat.