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A Closer Look at Foster Youth and Sex Trafficking

  ·   By Susan Mapp

Sex trafficking of children in the United States occurs to children of all races and ethnicities and to both boys and girls. As I note in my forthcoming book – Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking – while specific numbers are unknown, it is known that children in the foster care system are particularly vulnerable to being trafficked. In 2014, 68 percent of those reported to The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and found to be exploited through sex trafficking had been in foster care when they went missing.

This heightened vulnerability is for a number of reasons, and includes both the experiences that brought them into foster care, as well as their experiences while in care. Having experienced child maltreatment greatly increases the risk of being trafficked. Although clearly not every maltreated child will be trafficked, the professionals I interviewed noted that the vast majority of their clients had been abused as children: emotionally, physically, and/or sexually. Their experience is supported by extensive research.

This linkage may be due to lessons that maltreated children are taught. Children who have been abused are taught that people who love you mistreat you, that they do not have the right to say no and that they cannot control what happens to their bodies. Emotional abuse teaches children that they are of low worth and that those who say they love them will demean and disrespect them. Children who are physically abused have learned that physical violence is an expected part of a loving relationship. If they have been sexually abused, they learn that their body does not belong to them, that it exists for someone else's pleasure. These children are also taught to keep secrets and hide information from authorities, a required skill while trafficked.

A child found to be physically, sexually or emotionally abused by their parent or caretaker, may be placed in foster care. However, this can create another set of risk factors. As Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, a sex trafficking survivor and alumna of the foster care system, stated in her testimony to Congress:

Youth within the system are more vulnerable to becoming sexually exploited because youth accept and normalize the experience of being used as an object of financial gain by people who are supposed to care for us, we experience various people who control our lives, and we lack the opportunity to gain meaningful relationships and attachments.

Youth within the system are more vulnerable to becoming sexually exploited because youth accept and normalize the experience of being used as an object of financial gain by people who are supposed to care for us, we experience various people who control our lives, and we lack the opportunity to gain meaningful relationships and attachments. 

Once in the foster care system, too many youth are in foster homes with caregivers who do not truly care about them. Ms. Pettigrew stated that caregivers often use the support money from the state to purchase luxuries for themselves, and the youth are told they are simply the means to a paycheck. Thus, even before they are trafficked, these children are being taught that their purpose is to bring money into a household. An advocate reported a survivor stated that for her:

Foster care was the training ground to being trafficked. She understood that she was attached to a check. And what she points out is that at least the pimp told her that he loved her, and she never heard that in any of her foster care placements.

Adolescents in foster care experience the natural adolescent yearning for freedom and autonomy, however those in foster care have even less say over what happens in their lives than their same-age peers. Their lives are dictated by their caseworkers, foster parents and likely, other professionals. Adolescents in foster care often report plans are made for them without their input and feeling that they are not heard when they do speak up. This can be particularly true for those in a residential center, the type of placement from which youth are most likely to run, they do not have the same freedom of movement as their peers. Therefore, when they are seemingly offered a chance to be on their own and make their own decisions, or they run away, they will take it, and can thus be recruited into a trafficking situation.

Those who are members of the LGBTQ community are at further risk. Sexual minority youth are significantly more likely to be involved with the child welfare system than sexual majority youth. Once in the system, they continue to face difficulties due to discrimination, including rejection by foster parents, verbal and physical harassment and hostility. They report poorer treatment by the child welfare system, a higher number of foster care placements, are more likely to be placed in a group home and are more likely to be homeless.

To help prevent these youth from being trafficked, all those working in the child welfare system, whether as caseworkers, residential center staff, foster parents or others, must be made aware of this issue and the red flags that may signal a child is being groomed or trafficked. For example, Georgia developed a webinar to address this need due to the busy schedules of child welfare staff to ensure they had the needed information, while other states, such as Pennsylvania, have offered trainings to foster parents. They must also constantly work to meet a child's needs in a healthy way and ensure that the child feels accepted. Regardless of their role, all citizens need to be aware of this crime so we can stop the selling of the nation’s children for people’s sexual desires. You can learn more in - Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking - available in June 2016.


Susan Mapp, MSSW, Ph.D., is a professor and chair of the Social Work Department at Elizabethtown College.

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