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Why Youth in Foster Care Are Vulnerable to Human Trafficking and How Caregivers Can Protect Them

foster care and human trafficking

As parents and foster parents, the thought of precious children being forced into sexual servitude is deeply disturbing. Human trafficking is a frightening practice that can be overlooked as a problem that only happens in other countries or as something that could never happen to anyone you know. Yet the FBI estimates that about 100,000 children in the United States are exploited in a staggering billion dollar human trafficking industry, and the statistics show a link between human trafficking and the foster care system. As a parent, foster parent, or caregiver of any child, awareness of the facts is important in order to prevent any child from experiencing human trafficking.

Trafficking Statistics

As defined by Homeland Security, human trafficking is “modern-day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” Across the nation, 16% percent of the children who ran from the care of social services and were reported missing to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Youth (NCMEC) in 2019 were likely victims of human sex trafficking. Studies from New York and Connecticut found that 50% of human trafficking victims were involved with child welfare systems or juvenile justice systems and that 80% of girls involved in human trafficking had been in the child welfare system in the past. In 2013, the FBI recovered sex trafficking victims from over 70 cities nationwide, and over 60% of them had been in foster care or group homes.

Why is there a link between human trafficking and the foster care system?

Sara Schlagel, Director of Program & Staff Development for KVC Hospitals

As Director of Program & Staff Development for KVC Hospitals, Sara Schlagel works on program development, improvement, and compliance of residential and acute hospitalization programs. She also oversees staff development and training to ensure patients receive the best care. Schlagel explains that the life circumstances of children in foster care lead to a higher vulnerability to human trafficking.

“We know, in general, children that struggle with their mental health, who have experienced some type of abuse, and do not have a strong support system are at higher risk to become victims,” Schlagel says. “Unfortunately many of the children in the foster care system have experienced those risk factors prior to entering care and more. That can lead youth to being more susceptible to being manipulated, coerced and or forced into commercial sexual exploitation. They are some of the most vulnerable children in our community.” 

The goal of foster care is to provide a safe place that gives a child and his or her birth family an opportunity to resolve conflicts or disruptions so the child can safely return home. On any given day, nearly 428,000 children are in the U.S. foster care system. Through no fault of their own, many of these children have experienced abuse, neglect or other family challenges and have been removed from their homes by the courts for their safety. The need for compassionate families that want to open their home and heart to a child is great. If you are interested in keeping vulnerable children safe, you can learn more about becoming a foster parent through KVC.

How does it happen?

Human trafficking of children can occur in various settings, both in person and online, with both strangers and people children already know. According to Save The Children, a nonprofit dedicated to ending child sex trafficking, a child could be trafficked from their own home or where they live, but other common areas children are trafficked from in America are hotels, motels, truck stops and online.

According to the Department of Justice, traffickers or recruiters might be people the child knows, offering them necessity items like food or clothes, or love and attention the child might not otherwise be getting, or more lavish incentives like lots of money or nice things. 

Schlagel says it might be a local mall, online, or somewhere that is “seemingly safe” where the child often spends time. “[Children] are recruited by peers their age, adults, and others of any gender identification under the guise of protection, love and/or a sexy and lavish lifestyle,” she says. “While some youth that have significant risk factors [making them] more susceptible to become victims, anyone can become a victim.” 

How to identify common behaviors of human trafficking victims

Through physical, psychological, and emotional abuse, victims are trapped whether they can recognize that reality or not. Save The Children notes other ways traffickers trap their victims, such as drug addiction, violent relationships, manipulation, lack of financial independence or isolation from family or friends. Because of this, as the Department of Justice reports, trafficking victims, especially children, are often “conditioned” to be loyal to their trafficker. 

“Youth many times feel they have consciously made the decision to participate in human trafficking, even though they were groomed, coerced and sometimes threatened to do so, and may defend and protect their traffickers vigorously,” Schlagel explains. 

How to keep an eye on kids in your care

If you are in the foster care system as a caregiver, it’s extremely important for you to be an advocate and ally for children who might be vulnerable to or are actual victims of human trafficking. Everyone can play a part in protecting the children who need it the most. Teach your children about trafficking, talk to other parents and caregivers and watch for signs of human trafficking.

These signs can include:

  • Your child having access to phones or other expensive items you did not provide
  • Showing signs or symptoms of abuse
  • Reporting or expressing overly sexual behaviors
  • Seeming to have an overly controlling friend or person you don’t know in their life

What you can do… and what you shouldn’t do

Schlagel explains that caregivers and supportive adults in children’s lives are the most impactful in protecting them from human trafficking. Having open, honest communication with the youth in your care is critical.

“It can be hard to balance being an effective caregiver and confidant, but it is extremely important to have an open, honest relationship,” Schlagel says. “The more a supportive adult knows about a youth’s life, the better they are able to identify risky situations, people, and circumstances that could lead the youth to becoming a victim.” 

Other tips from Schlagel on what not to do are: attempting to push a child to share information about their abuse and attempting to turn a child against his or her trafficker. Allowing a child to share information as they trust and have real rapport with you is important. Additionally, understanding that their trafficker is not good or to be trusted is a conclusion they must come to themselves. 

What happens when professionals intervene?

The safety of youth is KVC’s priority and it has continually exceeded federal performance standards. You can learn more about how we achieve this and meet one of our skilled Missing Youth Specialists here. Professionals are uniquely equipped with training and knowledge of how children might act or what they might need in these situations.

First they establish that the child has their basic needs met. Food, water, shelter, clothing… if the child knows they will not be deprived of these things, they will be less likely to feel dependent upon their trafficker. Further, feeling safe, cared for and supported are extremely important. Clinicians do what they can do to remove areas of the child’s dependence upon their handler and then take their cues from the child’s behavior in order to serve them as a unique child. 

Schlagel explains this, saying, “I remind myself what happens to the brain when someone has experienced significant trauma, adversity and toxic stress. When experiencing extreme emotions, a person’s brain is not able to function as intended. Many times they may experience some sort of cognitive impairment as a result of long exposure to negative events. Due to that impairment, my approach as a clinician needs to be sensitive to a youth’s needs and to do my best to meet them where they are at. A child may be 14 years old, look like an 18-year-old, but function at the level of a 10-year-old. I can’t provide effective treatment for that 14-year-old if I treat them as a 14-year-old.”

If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

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