The Foster Care System and Human Trafficking

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May is National Foster Care Month! As professionals working to combat human trafficking, it is essential to recognize the intersections between the foster care system and human trafficking. A flawed child welfare system perpetuates deep-seated cracks which vulnerable adolescents inevitably fall through. Many foster care youth have had traumatic experiences and have had negative interaction with the child welfare system. These factors make foster care youth more likely to become runaway, homeless youth which is a very vulnerable population to human trafficking. Prevention and action are imperative to address this issue. 

Foster Care Demographics 

Foster care is not only a child welfare issue, but it is also an inequality issue. In September 2018, there were 437,283 children in the foster care system according to the Children’s Bureau report of 2020. Of those 437,283 children, 44% were White, 23% were Black, 21% were Hispanic/LatinX, and 10% were other races or multiracial. Statistically, in the United States, people of color account for 24% of the population. However, children of color make up 55% of the foster care population making them disproportionately overrepresented in the child welfare system.

Another demographic to consider is sexuality. LGBTQIA+ children in the foster care system are more likely to run away and have an increased risk of being trafficked. In a 2016 study conducted by Loyola University in New Orleans, in partnership with the Modern Slavery Research Project, 641 adolescents in the Covenant House, a service for homeless youth, were interviewed. Of those 641 youth, 19% were identified as survivors of human trafficking. The vast majority of participants interviewed had been trafficked due to vulnerabilities around homelessness. In this study, LGBTQ youth accounted for 19% of the respondents, yet were disproportionately represented as victims of trafficking–36% of sex trafficking victims, and 36% engaged in the sex trade. This was a form of survival for youth who knew nothing else but instability their entire lives. The uncertainty due to the flaws in the foster care system perpetuated already pronounced vulnerabilities in these youths. 

Why Run Away?

Adolescents decide to leave foster care homes for various reasons. Trauma plays a significant role. A child may also be removed from a home, usually for some type of physical or mental abuse. When they are removed from the only home they know and uncertain about the future, this only intensifies the already present trauma. Being moved around from home to home creates a sense of instability. As a result, children in foster care lack the ability to form protective relationships with supportive adults, such as their foster parent, or supportive institutions, like the child welfare system. Trust is something that takes time to build, and once broken, it takes even more time to get back. The child welfare system can leave children feeling defeated and let down. Consequently, they resist new relationships due to their already overwhelming vulnerability to traumatic experiences. 

The Intersection of Foster Care and Human Trafficking

Child welfare systems rely on a framework that promotes safety, permanency, and wellbeing. However, many children in foster care find themselves in unsafe environments, unstable living situations or homeless, and have unmet physical, mental health, and educational needs. Trauma only exacerbates these issues, which children ‘in the system’ are also more vulnerable to. Statistically, children who have experienced trauma and abuse are more likely to be trafficked. Other risk factors include histories of familial violence, being a runaway or unaccompanied child, having issues at school, being introduced to sexual activities at a young age, and seeking independence. Moreover, youth may normalize unhealthy relationships because it may be all they’ve ever known. Traffickers know this and use this as a strategy to groom at-risk youth, securing their trust, then exploiting them sexually or for unpaid labor. For these reasons, we must focus as a field on reforming the child welfare system. The intersection between human trafficking and other forms of exploitation is undeniable and is a key element of prevention for young people. 

What Can We Do? 

An interview with Ahlea Howard and Sara Rosenblatt, Freedom Network members from the International Institute at Buffalo, revealed small ways in which service providers can better serve this population. Fundamentally, service providers must approach this population in a trauma-informed way and work from a human rights-based perspective. Runaway youth need assistance with basic needs such as food vouchers and/or gift cards to grocery stores. It is also essential for service providers to display unconditional positive regard with their clients. Youth in the foster care system are often involved with many service providers or legal systems. Something as simple as talking with a youth’s caseworker or probation officer about how to be more trauma-informed while working with the youth could help prevent retraumatization and could foster trust with support systems. 

Another vital aspect Ahlea and Sara emphasized was having youth-centered services. However, accomplishing these programs can be challenging due to a lack of funding. At its core, the system is failing these youth. They would rather engage in survival sex than enter foster care. Child welfare workers frequently have high caseloads and are exposed to vicarious trauma. Because of this, there is a high turnover rate for caseworkers, making it even more of a challenge for continuum of care. Changing the entire child welfare system is a tall order and it could take decades to achieve. However, providers can improve small aspects by building in choice and trust in the service relationship and advocating for more resources in programs that support this population. It may be a broken system to begin with, but service providers can work together and help put back the pieces, little by little.