Is Foster Care Really the Supply Chain for Domestic Sex Trafficking?

On Tuesday, April 8, the Center for American Progress sponsored a forum: “Combating Sex Trafficking of Minors in the U.S.” The panel included Senator Amy Klobuchar, (D-MN); Malika Saada Saar, Executive Director, Human Rights Project for Girls; and John Temple, Attorney-in-Charge, New York County District Attorney’s Office Human Trafficking Program.

Much of the discussion was by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) regarding legislation she is sponsoring, S.1733, “The Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act.” The legislation would encourage changes by law enforcement in the way they address domestic sex trafficking and sexual exploitation, specifically as it impacts minors. Key provisions of the legislation require states to treat minors who engage in a commercial sex act as a victim. It discourages the prosecution of victims for the crime of prostitution by creating “safe harbor” laws that would apply to minors. In addition it encourages the diversion of victims to child protection services and directs the U.S. Justice Department to develop a national strategy.

The discussion after the Senator’s remarks returned to a familiar theme heard many times in Washington, D.C. in the past two years. That discussion focused on the child welfare system with foster care receiving the primary blame for domestic sexual exploitation (a large part of trafficking involves international victims). At one point panelist Malika Sada Saar indicated that 80 to 90 percent of the children who are victims of sexual trafficking come from foster care and that “foster care is the supply chain for sexual trafficking victims.” Claims similar to this have been retold countless times in numerous briefings and discussions in Washington, D.C. The narrative portrays a child welfare system that takes children into care and turns them into victims of sexual trafficking. But is this really an actuate portrayal?


So, what do we know?

First, the statistics often cited in support of the child welfare-only explanation:

  • Of 88 child victims of sex trafficking in the state of Connecticut, 86 were “child welfare involved.”
  • In 2012, 56 of 72 commercially sexually exploited girls in an Los Angeles-based court program were “child-welfare involved.” Fifty-eight percent of these 72 kids were in foster care.
  • In 2007, New York City identified 2,250 child victims of trafficking. Seventy-five percent of those experienced “some contact with the child welfare system,” mostly in the context of abuse and neglect proceedings.
  • In Alameda County, CA, 41 percent of 267 victims in 2011-2012 were kids in foster care.

But there is additional information and research that paints a broader picture of this complex problem—a problem that started to get more national attention only as recently as 2000 with the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA, P.L. 106-386). The emphasis of the child welfare-only explanation ignores the population of homeless and runaway youth who are not necessarily the same children in foster care—currently the foster care population is just under 400,000 children with 254,000 entering foster care and 241,000 exiting care in 2012. According to HHS data,

  • Every day, approximately 1.3 million runaway, throwaway, and homeless youth live on the streets of America.
  • Children, both boys and girls, are solicited for sex, on average, within 72 hours of being on the street.
  • Approximately 55 percent of street girls engage in formal prostitution; 75 percent of those work for a pimp. About one in five of these children becomes entangled in nationally organized crime networks and is forced to travel far from home and isolated from friends and family.
  • A girl will first become a victim of prostitution between the ages of 12 and 14, on average.

The child welfare-only explanation also ignores other factors that influence victimization, especially children who have been victims of sexual abuse. A 1994 National Institute of Justice report states that, “minors who were sexually abused were 28 times more likely to be arrested for prostitution at some point in their lives than minors who were not sexually abused.” It is often assumed that all children who are victims of sexual abuse are part of the child welfare system, but they are not. Typically less than ten percent of the approximate 700,000 children substantiated for child maltreatment annually are substantiated for reasons of sexual abuse (as opposed to physical abuse or neglect).

The Urban Institute recently released a U.S. Justice Department funded report, “Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities.” The report looked at both the perpetrators (pimps) and the victims.

  • Seventy-eight percent of victims were woman, nearly 20 percent were transgender, and nearly 3 percent were male.
  • In some instances a person may have begun their lives in sexual exploitation as young as 11 and as old as 39. Seventy-eight percent started between the ages of 15 through 27 and 11 percent began before the age of 15.
  • The report indicates that, “Sex workers first started trading sex on the street for a wide variety of reasons, including economic need; homelessness; the encouragement of family members, friends, and acquaintances; a desire for social and emotional acceptance; as a natural continuation of other forms of commercial sex work, such as stripping and dancing and to support substance use. For many, a combination of these reasons served as the impetus to begin trading sex.”

A 2009 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) funded literature review, “Human Trafficking into and within the United States: A Review of the Literature,” found the key factors that influence victimization include, age, poverty, sexual abuse, family substance/physical abuse, individual substance abuse, learning disabilities, loss of parent/caregiver, runaway/throwaway, and sexual identity issues. The National Institute of Justice also points to the role of substance abuse, “Multiple studies suggest that girls involved in prostitution are more likely to come from homes where addiction was present. For example, one study of 222 women in Chicago involved in prostitution found 83 percent had grown up in a home where one or both parents were involved in substance abuse. Further, prostituted girls are more likely to have witnessed domestic violence in their home; specifically, girls are likely to have seen their mother beaten by an intimate partner.” Substantive studies also highlight methods of recruitment that include solicitation by boyfriends, friends, and  family members across a range of locations that include the street, juvenile justice facilities, shopping malls, schools, shelters, group homes, and the internet.

One point does seem to be clear from the recent Washington debate, there are few treatment options for victims and there are on-going debates on what that treatment should be, including residential, lock-down, and home-based. During last week’s panel discussion, John Temple from New York City discussed that city’s efforts to address trafficking of girls and boys. He indicated that within New York City, a city of 8.3 million people, there are only “about 20 to 25 beds that were available for treatment” for children victimized by sexual traffickers. There are differences in the number of beds available, but a national survey last year by an Illinois-based group funded by the U.S. Justice Department found 33 residential programs totaling 682 beds. The treatment needed is complex and has to address factors such as trauma bond, underlying issues like substance abuse, trauma from previous sexual abuse and other trauma such as exposure to violence. Ironically the call for more treatment via child welfare comes up against a backdrop of current child welfare reform debates and discussions that are increasing calling for caps, restrictions and limitations on the use of residential care.

The HHS review of literature determined that when it comes to treatment key needs include,

  • Emergency Services:  safety, housing, and food/clothing and
  • Short-term and Long-term Services: legal assistance, intensive case management, medical care, alcohol and substance abuse counseling/treatment, mental health counseling, life skills training, education, job training/employment, and family reunification.

The problem with the current debate.

The problem regarding much of the recent debate that focuses solely on child welfare is that it ignores all of the other sources of sexual exploitation. It suggests a solution can be carried out by simply amending child welfare law and that child welfare can address the problem without any additional funding.

Recent proposals ignore the need to address the front end whereby child maltreatment, including sexual abuse, may plant the seeds for future victimization. These proposals also discount the need to address all youth in care so that none transition to the streets. Proposals that would simply mandate new directives without the resources create a “zero-sum game.” The same child welfare agencies will have to use the same dollars to expand care (and under some proposals expand child welfare services up to age 25). Advocates within the child welfare community know we are not doing enough to serve infants and toddlers, that far too many youth (over 24,000 in 2012) leave foster care not because we found them a family but because they grew too old to stay in care, and that we have over 100,000 children and youth officially listed as waiting to be adopted.

In regard to sexual trafficking the Administration has started to recognize the need for greater effort regarding the domestic side of sexual and human trafficking but from a more comprehensive approach. The proposed FY 2015 budget includes an increase of $8 million to $10 million to expand services for domestic victims of human trafficking. The January FY 2014 appropriations created a small $2 million initiative that will provide competitive grants to pilot projects by state, local, and tribal governments, or non-profit organizations that can work with trafficking victims or work with at-risk populations including runaway or homeless youth or those who have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual abuse, or other forms of maltreatment. The proposed focus will include intensive case management services to facilitate follow-up care, such as access to mental and behavioral health services, and information and referral to public benefits and other services. Grantees will be expected to coordinate services between entities that encounter trafficking victims including police, hospitals, culturally specific community based organizations, sexual violence organizations, community mental health agencies, and immigrant service providers. Demonstrations will target areas with high rates of domestic trafficking.

The Urban Institute study discussed strategies: “Cities and counties should address sex trafficking as a complex problem that requires a system wide response, and schools, law enforcement, and social service agencies must work collaboratively to combat sex trafficking in their communities. Prevention campaigns must ensure that both boys and girls are educated about the role of force, fraud, coercion, and exploitation in sex trafficking. Public schools should implement awareness campaigns. Local law enforcement should present in schools and share stories related to real cases, as well as encourage student outreach and reporting to law enforcement officials. Increasing the awareness of school officials will also help them identify at-risk or involved youth. Cross-training of local school officials and teachers and awareness raising within the schools will encourage the active involvement of school authorities in detecting possible cases of sex trafficking.”

What is needed in dealing with sexual exploitation is a comprehensive strategy whereby child welfare plays a role. What is needed in child welfare are improvements and resources that make sure all victims of abuse are treated, all children find permanent families, and no young person ages out without a family and a future. Child welfare has to be a part of any comprehensive solution to domestic sex trafficking, but the suggestion that it is the solution (and the blame) is at best off the mark. At worse, it is potentially harmful to children and youth who are in care as the last best hope when other systems—public, private and familial—have failed.

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