The crisis of child trafficking and exploitation in the U.S. is finally capturing our attention. But a critical part of the story has not been told. Most of the children who are being bought and sold for sex in our nation are foster care children. In the states that are tracking these children the following, devastating numbers reveal that:
• In 2013, 60 percent of the child sex trafficking victims recovered as part of a FBI nationwide raid from over 70 cities were children from foster care or group homes.
• In 2012, Connecticut reported 88 child victims of sex trafficking. Eighty-six were child welfare involved, and most reported abuse while in foster care or residential placement.
• In 2012, Los Angeles County, California reported that of the 72 commercially sexually exploited girls in their Succeed Through Achievement and Resilience (STAR) Court Program, 56 were child-welfare involved.
• 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.
Our very broken foster care system has become a supply chain to traffickers. Perhaps the most poignant delineation of how children involved in our foster care system are so vulnerable to traffickers is the Congressional testimony that Withelma "T" Ortiz Walker Pettigrew made last week, before the House Ways and Means Committee. She is a survivor of child sex trafficking who was born into the foster care system. I urge you to read her words and to bear witness to her lived experience and expertise on how foster care is the training ground in this country for being bought and sold for sex.
In Ms. Walker Pettigrew's words:
I spent for the most part, the first 18 years of my life in the foster care system. Seven of those years I was a child being sexually trafficked on the streets, Internet, strip clubs, massage parlors and even in the back of express papers. Many children, like myself, come from various traumas previously to entering into foster care, and many times, are further exposed to trauma throughout their experience in the foster care system...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.
In addition, traffickers/pimps/exploiters have no fear of punishment because they rely on the lack of attention that occurs when these young people go missing...Many children, myself included, who grow up in foster care express how it is common household knowledge that many caregivers take them in primarily for the paycheck in which they are provided for the purpose of caring for the child...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." 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. This creates a mind frame for the youth that their purpose is to bring income into a household...Therefore, when youth are approached by traffickers/pimps/exploiters, they don't see much difference between their purpose of bringing finances into their foster home and bringing money to traffickers/pimps/exploiters' 'stable...'
Like me, any youth in foster care, becomes accustomed to adapting to multiple moves from home to home which allows us to easily then adapt to when traffickers/pimps/exploiters move us multiple times, from hotel to hotel, city to city, and/or state to state. For myself, as unfortunate as it is to say, the most consistent relationship I ever had in care was with my pimp and his family.
T's testimony calls on us to no longer ignore a broken foster care system, and the dangerous intersection between child welfare and child trafficking. It is critical that reforms are made to the child welfare system such that children are protected and safe while in care. More rigorous protocols must be established to screen foster parents and their families, funding for group homes must be re-evaluated, and when children in care are abused, they cannot be punished for disclosure. And for those children who are already involved in commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking, child welfare systems must identify, assess, and provide the appropriate interventions needed to help children heal. Our most vulnerable children, like T and the other girls still left behind on the streets and listed on Backpage.com desperately need us to create new underground railroads out of this modern day form of slavery.