At any given time in the U.S., there are about half a million children in foster care. Many of these children are in crisis situations, and will be in foster care for only a short time, returning home or to live with a family member when the crisis has been resolved. Other children, however, remain in the system. The lucky ones will remain in one home, loved and nurtured, possibly even adopted (although for most that can take up to 4 years.) Unfortunately, most children in foster care will have to live in at least 3 different placements, and every year, 300,000 children “age out” of the system, meaning they turn 18 and no longer receive support services.
Most foster parents try their best to provide stable, loving environments for the children in their care. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the U.S. foster care system is becoming a “pipeline” for human trafficking. In an interview with NPR, Malika Saada Saar of Rights4Girls discusses this issue:
If we really look at this issue of child trafficking in America, it’s another lens through which to understand how broken our foster care system is. Many of these girls, especially, have been put into multiple placements, and many of these girls in those different placements have been abused. So one survivor leader whom we work with who was trafficked from the age of 10 to 17 – all through California, Nevada, Washington state – she talks about how, for her, foster care was the training ground to being trafficked. She understood that she was attached to a check. And what she points out is that at least the pimp told her that he loved her, and she never heard that in any of her foster care placements.
Further, Saada Saar cites 60 percent of the children rescued in a recent FBI sting had been in foster care at some point. One young woman, Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Ways and Means, told her story of foster care and being trafficked. The experience of foster care, she said, gave her the mindset that she was tied to a paycheck, that her worth and value were not intrinsic; she was worth only the money she brought in. This set her up as easy prey for traffickers.
From my own experience and that of others, the money that is given by the state is supposed to be utilized to provide for the child’s basic needs — however the money is often used for other things, specifically for special luxuries for the caretaker and their biological children and families, unrelated to the financial support of the child it was intended for. 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.
This mindset, she testified, sets many children in foster care up for the seduction and grooming of human traffickers. Craving attention and stability, a child who has been moved from one placement to another can easily find themselves lured into a world of promises made by the trafficker, only to find themselves used for financial gain. Many children in foster care have been previously abused, putting them at further at risk.
Another obstacle that must be overcome in order to prevent children from falling prey to traffickers is treating victims as criminals. Many states continue to prosecute children who have been picked up for solicitation or prostitution, rather than providing mental health and other services that would keep them out of the hands of traffickers. CAS Research & Safety cites the need for emotionally stable care for these children:
Foster care children are targeted by traffickers because of their need for love, affirmation, and protection.
Victims are trained to call sex traffickers “daddies” and themselves “wifies” – a perverted reflection of the family unit that these children are seeking. These children long for a family…even if it means being subjected to extreme violence and abuse.
There will always be children who require care outside of their biological families. Clearly, what we are doing now is not always working well. In fact, it seems as if foster care is often a precursor to becoming a victim of human trafficking. We must do better for our children, especially children who are most vulnerable.