The Intersection Between Human Trafficking and Foster Care
Identifying vulnerability: a cruel tactic employed by every successful human trafficker to select his or her next victim. These criminals prey on the naivety of children, the financial insecurity resulting from poverty, the emotional weaknesses created by absent parents, the suffering caused by past abuse. Sadly, the point where all of these vulnerabilities intersect is the foster care system.
Foster care refers to a service provided by state governments to temporarily house children who must be separated from their families. Typically, children must be removed from their parents because their living conditions have become unsafe, they have been abused or neglected, or their parents are unable to care for them. The age of these children ranges from infancy to 18, or 21 in those states that offer additional transition programs to foster care youth over 18. The placement options for foster care include living with relatives or unrelated foster parents. The children can also reside in group homes, residential care facilities, emergency shelters, or supervised independent living locations. The social workers assigned to each child develop a care plan with the goal of placing him or her in a permanent situation with caring parents. These care plans can take the form of reunification with parents or primary caregivers, or adoption. However, some children remain in the foster care system long-term or exit as emancipated adults when they age out of foster care.
The National Foster Youth Institute reported that “60% of child sex trafficking victims recovered through FBI raids across the U.S. in 2013 were from foster care or group homes.” Heartbreakingly, many of these children were never even reported as missing. Children who enter foster care are experiencing a family crisis which often means they lack a strong, dependable foundation of support provided by their parents. The human trafficker frequently preys on foster care children’s fundamental desire to be loved and cared for by providing the attention and affection that they do not receive from their own family. For example, pimps attract young women into prostitution rings through the guise of a boyfriend claiming to love them. The “boyfriend” can even manipulate the young woman to return to her group home and lure other girls to leave through similar promises of financial security and a “family” to care for them.
Furthermore, when the foster care system places a child in a home, the government pays money to the foster parents to help care for that child. The rate varies from state to state. In Maryland, for example, the rate for regular foster care for a child from infancy to age 11 totals $27.45 per day, which amounts to $835 per month. The rate for regular care of a child age 12 and older is about 50 cents higher at $27.94 per day. This base rate is designed to subsidize the cost of the child by covering food, clothing, personal expenses, and transportation. However, sometimes foster parents will abuse these funds to finance their personal expenses and consequently neglect the needs of their foster care child. Over time, this abuse of government funds conditions the child to view him or herself as merely a means to bring income into the household. The child slowly accepts a false truth that his or her worth as a human being is intrinsically tied to financial gain. This corrosive mindset, compounded by his or her poverty, creates the ideal target for a trafficker to exploit.
The Child Welfare Information Gateway under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a report estimating that 442,995 children were in the foster care system on September 30, 2017. Of that 442,995 children, 1% had run away. Although this number constitutes a small percentage of the total children, only 1 percent of 442,995 equals 4,430 children. Running away out of fear and desperation, these children have little options for care and support, consequently allowing more than four thousand children to become additional targets for exploitation.
Of the 247,631 children who exited foster care from September 30, 2017 to August 1, 2018, 8% of these children have become emancipated. This statistic constitutes over 19,810 young people transitioning from an unstable upbringing to living completely on their own. Aging out of the foster care system presents a formidable challenge for these young people who must find a job and pay for all their expenses without the emotional or financial support of any family members. These youth must also often overcome a lack of quality education and financial literacy. All of these factors result in the tragic statistic that 50% of youth exiting foster care become homeless within 18 months of emancipation. If this percentage held for FY 2017, about 10,000 young adults would have suffered from homelessness within a year and a half after leaving the foster care system. These young adults are similarly susceptible to the manipulation of a human trafficker, eager to offer them the attractive lies of security and affection.
Despite many of its glaring and serious issues, the foster care system does include thousands of dedicated and self-sacrificing social workers, foster care workers, and volunteers. These people should be admired for their tireless work to better the lives of innocent children often subject to the abuse and neglect of their own parents. However, the shortage of social workers, as well as foster care families, causes these individuals to be horribly overworked in a short period of time. Consider how emotionally draining the role of a social worker can be, for he or she must manage the arrangement of housing for a child just removed from a dangerous situation involving drug abuse in the home or sexual abuse involving family members. Now, imagine that social worker must handle multiple of these mentally taxing cases at once and constantly feels the overwhelming pressure that failure simply cannot be an option. Concurrently, the need for housing options has risen as the number of foster children has increased over the past few years. However, the number of certified foster families willing to host these children on a temporary basis has not. Consequently, the same few families are always the first call of the social worker with an emergency placement situation and are quickly pushed beyond their capacity to care for foster children.
The gravity and immediacy of this issue has been recognized by numerous activists and legislatures across the country. In February of last year, President Trump signed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which included the Family First Prevention Services Act. This Act restructures the way that federal funding can be spent on foster care services to incentivize states to place children with families. Prior to the Family First Prevention Act, states could only receive major funding for foster care when the child was removed from his or her home setting, The Act alters Title IV-E of the Social Security Act to allow its funds to be used for essential services designed to prevent children from having to enter the foster care system at all, such as mental health and substance-abuse trainings as well as in-home training and family therapy. Furthermore, this legislation severely limits the availability of federal reimbursements for foster care children placed in group homes while increasing reimbursements for children placed in foster care families. Now, the federal government will not pay for a child to stay in a group home for more than two weeks, with a few exceptions including young women who are pregnant or parenting. Most child care advocates, such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Children’s Defense Fund, supported the changes created by the 2018 legislation to recognize the positive effects that being part of a family has on the development of a child. Patrick McCarthy, the Former President and Chief Executive Officer of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, wrote that the preventive services reinforced by the Act “are evidence-based approaches informed by the experiences of caseworkers, parents and children themselves. We know from the data that kids have the best chance to thrive if all possible strategies for keeping them with their families or in family settings are explored.”
This brief exploration into the foster care system should illuminate its complexities and the need for continued reform. Federal and state legislation, such as the Family First Prevention Services Act, represent significant advancements in the right direction. However, this change does not only happen through the government. Inspiring and innovative people, such as Ray Deck III who helped to alleviate the pressure on social workers and foster parents by opening a transitional foster care center solely for emergency placements to stay, are finding new ways to improve the system and help more foster care youth. Thousands of Americans dedicate countless hours as foster care parents and encourage other parents to do so as well.
Another element of the battle against human trafficking occurs in the catastrophic effects of drug abuse. The Child Trends Organization reports that “one in three children entered foster care in 2017” and therefore became vulnerable to human trafficking “because of parental drug abuse.” Last year, Congress, in coordination with the Trump Administration, passed the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act, which provides record funding to combat the opioid epidemic and curtail its devastating impact on individuals, families, communities, and the foster care system. Every single one of these initiatives reflects the admirable dedication of people to improve the lives of these children in crisis and prevent them from falling victim to the manipulation of a trafficker. Analyzing the vulnerability of foster care children to human traffickers highlights the vast network of elements contributing to the proliferation of the abhorrent crime and therefore the pressing need for people from every line of work to commit to its demise.
Child Welfare Information Gateway. Foster Care Statistics 2017. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. March 2019. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/foster.pdf
Kane-Hartnett, Liza. The Foster Care-Human Trafficking Nexus. Human Trafficking Search. 16 January 2018. https://humantraffickingsearch.org/foster-care-and-human-trafficking-nexus/
KVC Health Systems. Foster Care in America: Realities, Challenges and Solutions. 8 January 2018. https://www.kvc.org/blog/foster-care-in-america/
Maryland Department of Human Services. Financial Information. http://dhs.maryland.gov/foster-care/financial-information/
National Foster Youth Initiative. Sex Trafficking. (n.d). https://www.nfyi.org/issues/sex-trafficking/
Post, Dawn. Why Human Traffickers Prey on Foster-Care Kids. 23 January 2015. https://citylimits.org/2015/01/23/why-traffickers-prey-on-foster-care-kids/
Sepulveda, Kristin and Sarah Catherine Williams. One in Three Children Entered Foster Care in 2017 Because of Parental Drug Abuse. Child Trends: Bethesda, MD. 26 February 2019. https://www.childtrends.org/one-in-three-children-entered-foster-care-in-fy-2017-because-of-parental-drug-abuse
Thomave, Kalena. Family First Act Brings Major Changes One Year after Passage. Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity. 27 February 2019. https://spotlightonpoverty.org/spotlight-exclusives/family-first-act-brings-major-changes-one-year-after-passage/
The National Conference of State Legislatures. Family First Prevention Services Act. 27 June 2019. http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/family-first-prevention-services-act-ffpsa.aspx
The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Missing Children, State Care, and Child Sex Trafficking: Engaging the Judiciary in Building a Collaborative Response. Reno, NV. 2015. http://www.missingkids.com/content/dam/missingkids/pdfs/publications/missingchildrenstatecare.pdf
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, Children’s Bureau. Trends in Foster Care and Adoption. Adoption Foster Care Analysis Reporting System (AFCARS), FY 2008-2017. 10 August 2018. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/resource/trends-in-foster-care-and-adoption
Wiltz, Teresa. This New Federal Law Will Change Foster Care As We Know It. 2 May 2018. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2018/05/02/this-new-federal-law-will-change-foster-care-as-we-know-it