FBI official Ron Hasko and John Ryan, CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, announce the 76-city sweep in 2013 that rescued 105 children who were victims of sex trafficking, most of whom had been in foster care.


FBI official Ron Hasko and John Ryan, CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, announce the 76-city sweep in 2013 that rescued 105 children who were victims of sex trafficking, most of whom had been in foster care.

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. When you hear the word trafficking you might immediately think of young children in third world countries who are forced to be soldiers or sold to brothels or pimps for sex with wealthy Westerners. However, trafficking is not just an international problem but is rooted on our soil. Right here in the U.S., and particularly in large cities such as New York, some of our most vulnerable children, foster children, are victims.

In June 2014, FBI agents and police officers participated in a weeklong effort across the country to rescue child sex trafficking victims, finding minors as young as 11 in hotel rooms, truck stops and homes. Many of the rescued children were never reported as missing, despite being under the supervision of state child welfare systems.

Historically, reports suggest a majority of children involved in sex trafficking are either currently in foster care or have been involved with the child welfare system in the past. Consider this:

  • In 2013, 60 percent of the child sex trafficking victims recovered as part of a FBI nationwide raid from over 70 cities were children from foster care or group homes.
    In 2012, Connecticut reported 88 child victims of sex trafficking. Eighty-six were child welfare involved, and most reported abuse while in foster care or residential placement.
  • In 2012, Los Angeles County, California reported that of the 72 commercially sexually exploited girls in their Succeed Through Achievement and Resilience (STAR) Court Program, 56 were child-welfare involved.
  • In 2010, officials in Los Angeles reported that 59 percent of juveniles arrested for prostitution were in the foster care system.
  • In 2007, New York City identified 2,250 child victims of trafficking. Seventy-five percent of those experienced some contact with the child welfare system, mostly in the context of abuse and neglect proceedings.

Of children reported missing to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children who are also likely sex trafficking victims, 60 percent were in foster care or group homes when they ran away.

Why? Unfortunately, the foster care system can be a pipeline to prostitution. One reason is that many adolescents see themselves as just a paycheck for foster and adoptive parents. Consider one of our clients at the Children’s Law Center, Nina, whose adoptive mother is 73, has had three strokes and is in a wheelchair, and in addition to Nina, adopted two other children now ages 6 and 8. Her only source of income besides her disability check is the adoption subsidies that she receives from the foster care system.

Nina’s adoptive mother uses her adult children to physically punish Nina but also makes it clear to them, “don’t hurt her too bad, I need that check.”

Nina’s experience is not isolated. In 2013, 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.

When children feel that no one care about them, and are moved from one placement to another, craving attention and stability children can easily find themselves seduced by traffickers who initially make them feel care for, only to find themselves used for financial gain. Many children in foster care have been previously abused, putting them at further at risk. In addition, children who are placed into foster care as adolescents are automatically placed into group homes since foster parents generally are only willing to take young children. In fact, traffickers will often send one of their girls into group homes to find girls and urge them to leave by saying things like they will be well taken care of financially and have a “family” so to speak who will care for them.

Notably, the average age of children who are trafficked into prostitution that are picked up by law enforcement for the first time is 14. Experts have extrapolated that these girls have generally been “on the track” or “in the life” for at least two years meaning the average age entering the sex trade would be 12. One of my colleagues worked with a client who was 10 when she first became trafficked. One of my former adolescent clients, Sherry, was beaten by pimps and johns time and time again. Each time she would contact me and I would visit her in the hospital. While I always encouraged her to leave the life and, in one instance got her to enter into a program, she kept returning to her pimp and ultimately was killed. It wasn’t enough to have an attorney such as myself who cared enough to be there for her when she was in crisis. She needed someone to be there in the day to day, to tell her that she mattered and that she was cared for.

Unfortunately, the foster care system in New York City perpetuates a reliance on foster care and adoption subsidies that prioritizes the money over the child. This was made abundantly clear in a recent exposé which revealed that hundreds of adoptive parents continue to get monthly government subsidies of up to $1,700 per child even though their child is no longer living with them. They can receive the subsidy until the child is 21 unless they voluntarily terminate the subsidy, which many do not, even if the child re-enters foster care.

While it is often deeply flawed, and probably overused, foster care is a necessary, and in some cases, very positive, policy response to the real problems of child abuse and neglect. So, what can we do to improve outcomes for children in foster care? It is crucial that help children in the system feel more like children in families. This will require a necessary change in how foster parents are recruited and from where. So that future children in foster care can be given what Nina and Sherry did not have, foster and adoptive parents who are committed to them and their development into adults, and who at the most fundamental level will let them know that they matter, and are loved and cared for.

The views expressed are those of the author and not the organization.

12 thoughts on “Why Human Traffickers Prey on Foster-Care Kids

  1. Believe government funded residential treatment centers like Children’s Advocacy Centers should replace the foster care system. Wouldn’t this be more feasible for overseeing, governing and staffing?

  2. Very sad, but really, can you separate the money from the kid, when the federal government pays the state for every child taken into care? Medicaid pays for whatever medications/treatments recommended for these children? Adopters get a monthly check, for every kid they adopt? Let’s face it, everything about these children is geared towards getting money; no wonder they feel they’ve got a price tag, and exist to give other people money. It’s the biggest problem with our current children’s service departments, and really needs to be replaced with a system that is really designed to help the children that need the help.

  3. It is also important that children are not removed unless absolutely necessary. Drug addicted parents or those with mental issues parents not in agreement with doctors and hospitals and wanting second opinions, home school kids,should not have children removed just because, but the services should be offered to children while the children are with their parents. This will leave foster homes open to truly needy children. There will be more money because children will be in home and monitored and case workers will have more time to spend on the kids instead of in court prosecuting the innocent parents. There will be less of a need for more homes and more case workers.

  4. Low life people will always pray on the unfortunate. Doesn’t anyone want a happy stable healthy family anymore? Foster care has many problems. Parents are thrown into it w/out proper training on attachment issues. The home becomes a living hell. These kids are difficult and need committed therapeutic parents. If more training is required then you will weed out those who are not truly committed to the job of helping these kids. It also might open the eyes of the ones just taking advantage and only doing it for the money. Inform FPs about RAD. Train them how to parent these kids. It’s different than other kids. There should be more services for respite and therapy and there should be more strict requirements to become a FP.

  5. I believe foster parents need to have a certain income and education level to qualify. The issue remains though of the shortages of families willing to step up to the plate and help nurture and heal children and birth families. To survive as a foster family, You have to be driven with a passion because the system still has flaws which can make fostering very frustrating , stressful and time consuming.
    I get tired of the bad rap foster families get as there are so many wonderful, healthy foster families out there that go through a lot of blood, sweat and tears for the sake of healing children.

  6. I live in Connecticut and i became a child protective services and child mental health care advocate following a needless CPS case against my husband and I rooted in pursuing access to spevialized psychiatric care for our youngest kinship adopted daughter. I recognize several policy and protocol flaws and juvenile court mechanism limitations, which together take kids down a foster care path for no other reason than the extortion of federal funding. From 2011 to mid 2016 860 ‘uncared for’ neglect petitions were filed putting 3 kids per week into foster care and group homes as an alternative to recieving psychiatric provider recommended higher level treatment. At risk kids put in riskier placements to save a buck.

    Connecticut masks its child welfare failures by skewing the data it releases for public consumption, defunding programs that parents used to find valuable and restricting access to intensive specialized child psychiatric residential treatment centers both in and out of state. The result is an uptick in kids going into state custody, children being unnecessarily harmed in care and parental alienation. Healthy adoptive families are at an especially high risk of child distuption as CT”s child welfare system prefers to remove adopted children from loving homes than to support access to high need trauma and attachment disruption therapeutic treatments. Doing so sets high risk kids up to fail and violates both parent and child rights, and prepares them for the track of prostitution. These :stanfard practices”, and others occur because best interest of the child is secondary to best interest of the state’s revenue projections.

  7. And yet the decline of the younger generation in caring ability shows a grim future, where people don’t care if there’s trafficking here. Hopefully there’s enough good people to get some reactions for these horrors.

  8. This is a huge issue that has been going on for years that most people seem to simply sweep under the rug. It’s extremely sad and disheartening how these children are put into unfortunate situations for reasons that aren’t even their fault and then they are used for money and taken advantage of without ever having a chance at a normal life. I’ve researched this topic and found many other startling statistics as well. Here are a few that may grab people’s attention. Nearly 80% of people who are incarcerated in the U.S came from foster care, and nearly 60% of the homeless population are people who were in foster care and less than 4% will ever get a college degree despite the fact that free college education is available for them. This is such a huge problem in our country that many people don’t know the extent of and has yet to be addressed because these numbers increase year by year. I believe if this issue was communicated better and brought to peoples attention that there would be a huge growth in support of children in foster care and issues such as this could be eliminated. We see commercials all of the time for animal charities and things like that, which is great but how often do we hear about children that are in need? That’s why it’s our job as those who do know to spread the word as much as possible. I don’t know the exact answer for stopping child sex trafficking, but I do believe that if these children are provided with the love and care that they need that they would not be sucked into such a horrible life.

  9. Pingback: A Hollow Victory | Stop Abuse Campaign

  10. Pingback: How the American Foster Care System Exposes Children to Human Trafficking – Ester’s Blog

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