5 Reasons Foster Youth Become Human Trafficking Victims

Girl giving piggy back ride to younger child
Why are foster youth more likely to be trafficked and what can you do to help?

In 2013, the FBI conducted a nationwide raid in 70 cities. That night, 60% of the youth they rescued from sex traffickers were missing from foster care or from group homes.

In 2007, a study of 2,250 child victims of trafficking revealed that 75% of the rescued youth had been in foster care.

In essence, human trafficking is the sale of a person for sex or labor in exchange for something of value, such as money, protection, or shelter. Traffickers exploit the vulnerabilities of others (like poverty, trauma, abuse, or homelessness) for financial profit. For an introduction to the issue, read the Human Trafficking 101 series.

Children and youth in foster care are the most vulnerable demographic to human trafficking in the United States.

How can this be? Why is it that foster youth are becoming victims at such a disproportionate rate to their peers?

The answer is that much of the reason that youth in care are victimized has nothing to do with the child welfare system itself. Youth are often vulnerable because of the reasons they were referred to child welfare in the first place.

5 key reasons that foster youth are victims of human trafficking

1. Neglect and Abuse
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, most children are in foster care because of neglect. Traffickers invest time, money, and energy into making a potential victim feel attractive, valued, and special. In a process called grooming, traffickers purchase gifts and give affirmations that youth long to hear. “You’re beautiful” or “You should model” or “Let me buy this for you” are phrases that abused and neglected youth may not have heard before. Foster youth are especially vulnerable to attaching themselves to any individual who gives him/her positive attention, whether or not that person is safe. What youth do not know is that when the grooming process is over, the complements and gifts are considered debts that are expected to be repaid by doing whatever the trafficker demands.

2. Normalizing Being Used for Financial Gain
Unfortunately, youth in care often internalize a feeling of being used for profit in their day-to-day lives. It is not uncommon for a foster youth to feel that he or she is only in a home so that the foster family can collect a paycheck. Perhaps youth have seen other adults use familial disputes such as custody or child support as means to financial gain as well. Therefore, when a trafficker starts treating this youth the same way, it feels normal. It’s assumed to be the way the world works.

3. Fractured Safety Nets
Whether in a foster home or a group home, nationwide the average child in foster care moves placements or families 3 to 4 times.  Instability and broken attachments with foster families, peers, and case workers create further vulnerabilities to human trafficking. When a child or youth does not have a strong safety net of adults to confide with questions or concerns, the youth may not reach out at all. Likewise, with frequent moves sometimes across the state, a youth in care likely hasn’t had many adults in their life long enough for them to recognize when they start to display signs of trouble (like a change in behavior or in the types of friends that they keeps) because they do not know what is normal for that child.

4. Longing for Family
Traffickers create a distorted definition of the family that a youth longs for. Traffickers may directly or indirectly offer youth who live in group homes or with foster families a sense of family connection and belonging. Consistent with the pop culture trends, traffickers groom victims to call them daddy and they often refer to victims as either wifey or baby girl. Traffickers promise to take care of their victims and to provide for them. Using familial terms and recreating a sense of belonging provides foster youth with a sense of security that they may not experience elsewhere.

5. Running Away and Homelessness
Abuse, neglect, and involvement with the child welfare system are each highly correlated with homelessness and running away from home. When a youth is away from stable housing, he is often forced to make highly consequential decisions about where to stay, where to find food, and how to remain safe.  Multi-city studies indicate that over 10% of homeless youth interviewed engaged in survival sex, exchanging sex for basic necessities like food and shelter. Out of desperation, many youth agree to go with a trafficker who offers them somewhere off the streets to sleep. However, they are unaware of what will be demanded of them in return.

Take Action

As overwhelming as the issue of human trafficking is and as paralyzing as it may feel, there are many things that you can do to combat this.

As a community member:

  • Wrap around families in need to prevent children from entering foster care in the first place. Programs that address housing instability, food insecurity, substance abuse, and domestic violence have an integral connection to both the issues of foster care and human trafficking. Ask the agencies serving in your community how you can help, and discover if there is a Safe Families chapter in your area.
  • Become an expert about what trafficking looks like in your city and share that information with the youth, caregivers, and service providers in your area. For detailed information and resources, download a free Engage Together® Toolkit, or learn how to conduct a community assessment.
  • Talk to the young people in your life about internet safety. Caregivers should monitor their children’s communications and social media accounts closely. Traffickers often utilize social media to recruit and groom victims. The information that teens share about themselves online can easily be used by traffickers either to create a false sense of connection in conversation or to blackmail the youth into cooperation. Utilize tools from NetSmartz created for kids, teens, and parents to discover more.
  • Consider becoming a foster parent or a respite provider for foster families in your community. If you aren’t in a place to open up your home, there are still many other ways to support foster families. Dropping off a meal, running an errand, or helping with housework are greatly appreciated.
  • Become a CASA volunteer. Court Appointed Special Advocates are community members who are trained to become advocates on behalf of abused and neglected children. A child with a CASA is more likely to find a safe and permanent home, is half as likely to reenter foster care, is more likely to pass all of their classes, and will receive more needed services than a child who does not have a CASA

As a foster parent:

  • Learn the push and pull factors that matter to your fostered and adopted youth as individuals. Does your teen seek out affection? Do your youth’s triggers make him or her feel pushed to run away? Is financial security or the idea of travel a large pull for your youth? Understand what matters to the youth in your care and help them find safe and healthy ways to achieve their goals so that they do not become vulnerable to a trafficker who could take advantage of their enthusiasm.
  • Understand the history of the children placed in your care. Human trafficking, if it is reported, is usually disclosed as rape or incest. It is critical to believe what the youth is telling you, and then to work with the proper authorities to rule human trafficking out instead of ruling it in later. Because human trafficking victims require specialized behavioral and medical services, it is important to distinguish this abuse from other types of abuse or sexual assault. Additionally, a history of sexual assault, itself, is a vulnerability for human trafficking.

Youth in foster care should never experience the horrors of human trafficking. As community members, foster and forever families, caseworkers, and concerned citizens, there is much that we can do to protect the youth in our care and to prevent human trafficking from happening in the first place.

Excerpts from this article first appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Fostering Families Today by the author Karissa Tillotson, LMSW.