Today the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on sex trafficking and the role of child welfare in the prevention and intervention of such abuse. Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) opened the hearing by comparing trafficking and exploitation to modern day slavery. He pointed out the need for his committee, which has jurisdiction over the nation’s foster care and adoption system, to explore such a topic noting that the children most vulnerable to trafficking predators are often foster youth (with some statistics suggesting that 50-80% of the children that are exploited and sold each year in America are connected to the foster care system).
Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-UT) took issue with the labeling of some of these at-risk children as “thrown away” children and stated that while their parents may have kicked them out of the home or abandoned them to the state, no child is a throw away and they all deserve to be protected, not treated like a criminal when they come to the attention of local law enforcement.
The witnesses for today’s hearing included a sex trafficking survivor turned advocate, a probation director with LA County, a Children’s Advocacy Center Director, and a judge with the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. They all shared stories of how they came to work with such a marginalized population, unique experiences that have shaped their work, programs that have shown proven results, and recommendations for Congress to address and provide federal support for preventing children from falling into the hands of sex traffickers.
Some of the common challenges that the witnesses expressed when working with this population are the fact that child welfare often does not intervene on behalf of these children due primarily to the fact that the traffickers are not their primary caregivers. In fact in many instances the victims are often charged with prostitution and unfortunately end up going back to the traffickers due to the lack housing and other resources that would keep them off of the streets. Another challenge is the fact that teachers, social workers, and law enforcement don’t have the training and/or education to see the signs and intervene on behalf of these children in a timely matter.
The recommendations that were presented before the Senate Finance Committee included the need for funding for specialized foster homes for at-risk youth, training for teachers, social workers, and law enforcement to see the signs and assist youth who are victims of sex trafficking, education for young women on how to stay safe and avoid falling into the trap of sex trafficking, and housing for young women who may be on the street and/or on the run from their trafficker. The witnesses also added that there is an underlying need to recognize sex trafficking as a form of child abuse regardless of the trafficker’s relationship to the victim. Consequently, professionals who interact with children must have the obligation to report this form of abuse. In the end, there was a general consensus that child welfare agencies have to be at the center of this work and own these children as victims of abuse if it is to be successful at preventing further abuse.
Today the White House hosted a national conference on mental health. In his opening remarks, President Obama took a moment to thank everyone in attendance as well as the folks across the country who work on behalf of those suffering from mental illness. He said the main goal of the conference was not to start a conversation about mental health but to elevate that conversation to a national level and to bring mental illness out of the shadows. The President talked about mental health parity and acknowledged former Representative Patrick Kennedy and his colleagues who worked tirelessly to ensure that individuals have access to mental health coverage that is comparable to what is offered for physical health. Unfortunately, as he noted, many individuals still do not have access to much needed treatment. He called on the country to do more to recognize the early signs of mental illness. President Obama concluded his remarks by offering a plea for individuals suffering from mental health to seek help. He assured them that they are not alone, and encouraged Americans to help those in need heal and thrive.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius moderated the morning panel which focused on addressing the stigma surrounding mental health and ways to break down the barriers that are preventing far too many people from seeking the help they need. The panel consisted of individuals with personal connections to mental illness.
The next panel was led by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and consisted of presentations by experts and organizations that have been successful in using creative ideas to address mental health. The presentations also highlighted techniques that can be used to reduce mental health stigma and help the millions of Americans struggling with mental health problems recognize the importance of reaching out for help.
Vice President Joe Biden delivered the closing remarks for today’s conference. He reiterated themes that had been discussed throughout the day and also made a plea for those suffering to not be ashamed of their condition but to know that help is available.
“Whether as a friend, a role model, or a guardian, any of us can be a supportive adult for a child in need. As we honor the countless Americans who are answering that call to action, let us mark this month by showing children and youth in foster care the best our country has to offer.”
With these and more inspiring statements, President Obama has proclaimed May as National Foster Care Month. For his administration’s part, the Children’s Bureau has unveiled a website full of resources to raise awareness during the month. Furthermore, the President’s budget includes some promising legislative proposals, including a teen pregnancy prevention program, a child support payment clarification, a domestic sex trafficking program, all targeted to help youth in care. Champions in the House of Representatives are also taking action and raising awareness through blue ribbon events, forums, and shadow days. In addition to our ongoing advocacy work, CWLA is participating in the month by posting daily resources and stories on our Facebook and Twitter pages.
The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is hosting a symposium this week to address the needs of victims of child sex trafficking in the U.S. The symposium is part of a White House initiative, first announced by President Obama at the 2012 Clinton Global Initiative, to bring together leading researchers, bipartisan policy makers and advocates to identify gaps in research, best practices, and evidence to improve the lives of sexually exploited children.
The symposium will address how mental health research, law enforcement, survivor advocacy, disruptive technology, epidemiology, criminal justice, and public policy can all inform the treatment of victims of domestic sex trafficking. Much of the discussion will focus on using the power of technology to address these needs including equipping law enforcement with the technology and information needed to help rescue girls and put traffickers behind bars, reach out to girls where they are, online and on their mobile phones, to link them with critical services in their communities, and fostering information-sharing among academia, law enforcement and the private sector.