Chances are, if you’re a victim of human trafficking in the United States, you were a foster child first. At a recent Congressional hearing, 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 Representative 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. Other introduced laws require child protective workers to be trained in how to help trafficking victims and report their prevalence, 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 as a foster child, she came to see herself as part of commercial activity, not part of a family. 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.
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. 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?”
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. 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.
Learn more at Kevin M. Ryan’s Huffington Post article: Keeping Foster Kids Safe from Prostitution.