Keeping Foster Kids Safe From Prostitution

Chances are, if you're a victim of human trafficking in the United States, you were a foster child first. According to arrest records of juveniles arrested for prostitution-related crimes in Los Angeles County, 59 percent were in the foster care system.

At a Congressional hearing Wednesday, lawmakers tackled the pipeline from foster care to prostitution, hearing from child advocates and a victim of sex trafficking raised in foster care.

"We can't continue to allow kids in foster care to become victims of this terrible crime," said Rep. Dave Reichert, WA, Chairman of the Human Resources subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, which held the hearing. "We owe it to them to ensure our nation's foster care system does all it can to protect them from predators so they can live safe, happy, and successful lives."

Advocates discussed legislative solutions at the hearing. One pending law requires that state child welfare regulations include trafficked children in their definitions of those who are abused children, which would qualify them immediately for help from the child welfare system. Too often, now, they are sent to juvenile detention instead.

The Honorable Bobbe J. Bridge, a former justice of the Washington State Supreme Court, now president of the Center for Children and Youth Justice, supported that legislation: "These are our children in the most fundamental way, because we've taken them from their homes, because we've determined their homes are not safe for their well-being. And when they run away, we just don't look for them? It's shameful."

Two Texas Congressmen have introduced laws to require child protective workers to be trained in how to help trafficking victims, and how to report their prevalence. And Rep. Ted Poe, a Republican from Humble, announced a new bill on Wednesday to punish johns and provide funds for programs to support victims of sex trafficking.

Withelma "T" Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, of the Human Rights Project for Girls, said that during her 18 years (that's right, an entire childhood) as a foster child, she came to see herself as part of commercial activity, not part of a family.

"These caregivers will make statements like, 'You're not my child, I don't care what's going on with you, as long as you're not dead, I'll continue to get my paycheck,'" Ortiz Walker Pettigrew explained in her written testimony. "This nothing-but-a-paycheck theory objectifies the youth, and the youth begin to normalize the perception that their presence is to be used for financial gain." She also had no experience in forming healthy relationships, and was used to having adult strangers control her destiny. Both factors made her particularly vulnerable to her sex trafficker, who started exploiting her when she was 10.

No one recognized how much danger she was in; all the warning signs were missed.

Those signs are available on one convenient card from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, for those whose work may bring them in contact with trafficking victims: law enforcement officials, social service and child welfare workers, teachers, doctors and nurses, and others.

Ms. Pettigrew's caseworkers knew she was being sexually exploited, but did nothing, she said. Rep. Tom Reed of New York found this hard to believe, and asked how a system could fail to protect children from such horror.

While the Child Welfare League of America recommends caseworkers have responsibility for only 12 to 15 children at a time, workers in Texas have nearly twice that number of children to oversee, said Ashley Harris, a former child welfare worker now at the Texans Care for Children.

"I just did not have the skills or the training to identify that," Ms. Harris said. She said because of a high turnover rate among caseworkers, information about children isn't shared well among teams, and people do not develop a long-term understanding of a child's behavior. "Many new workers in Texas are young, right out of college, and they don't have experience with vulnerable children and families. When you know a child is being victimized, the system has to give caseworkers the skills to reply appropriately."

The legislators heard a variety of suggestions for keeping foster children safe from exploitation. Speaking from first-hand experience, Ms. Pettigrew discussed how foster children miss out on so many normal milestones, which damages them, and leaves them vulnerable to exploiters.

"You have to know what makes them feel confident," she said. "They're not able to learn to drive, they can't go on overnights with their girlfriends, they're just not afforded normal developmental opportunities you would be getting in a regular home. That's one of the biggest disservices we do to these young people. Who's responsible for creating this person as a young adult?" These deficits make young people more susceptible to exploitation, she said.

The legal system also needs to be trained in working with trafficking victims, she said.

"We have judges who are misinformed, and not clearly educated. What good does it do to lock the young people up in detention, where they get no rehabilitation, no trauma-informed services, locked like a dog in a kennel waiting for someone else to pick them up at the next try?"

Seattle has joined the National Safe Place program, so vulnerable young people can go to libraries, non-profit groups serving runaways, and any bus in the county, report that they need help or are in danger, and can be connected with services within 45 minutes. That, as well as programs to shore up families who have become homeless, "can help us build a thicker safety net," said Melinda Giovengo, executive director of YouthCare in Seattle.

Policies need to be clarified so that foster kids who have been trafficked do not get lost between the child welfare and criminal justice systems, she added.

"When we call to report that a young person being trafficked, child welfare says to call the police, even for a 12- or 13-year-old," Ms. Giovengo said. "No one takes ownership over these young people, or adopts them as an ongoing concern."

Of course, it's better for trafficking survivors to be cared for outside of the criminal justice system - these aren't criminals we're talking about, they're in many cases the victims of statutory rape, and as such have no place behind bars! But we can't just send them back to the same foster care system they've run from without understanding why they have run, and whenever possible fixing the problems that drove them to the streets.

Children in foster care are twice as likely to run away as are children raised at home, and foster kids who have run away once are at very high risk of running away again. Many kids run because there remain foster care systems across the United States that do not meet their needs, often housing teenagers in institutional settings and giving up on genuine permanency planning for them.

Many kids run, or go missing, and are then never heard from again, as shocking as that may sound. Some child welfare systems simply lose track of the children they are supposed to be raising. At the end of last year, state governments could not account for 4,973 foster children.

How can states can take kids away from their homes for being neglected, and then... neglect them so badly that they lose them, and never find them?

It's crucial that we improve foster care, to help children in the system feel more like children in families -- confident, encouraged to grow, and above all, loved and cared for. Research from the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago points reformers in very clear directions: the more foster care placements a child has had, the more likely he or she is to run away. Kids in group homes are more likely to run than those in foster homes, and those with substance abuse or mental health issues are at special risk of running away.

If we want to end the trafficking and suffering of children, a good place to start is fixing foster care. The cynics aside, foster care can be fixed -- there are plenty of examples across the United States of reform taking hold due to strong political investment, a compassionate and skilled workforce and bold leadership. Our foster kids need and deserve the most stable, family-like homes possible until they can be safely returned to their birth families or adopted. They are, after all, our children. We have made them so, and we can't let them down.