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.