By: Camryn Peterson, Advocacy Manager
To truly end child and youth sex trafficking, we must not turn a blind eye to the systems that overlap with commercial sexual exploitation of children. As we reflect on National Foster Care month, we take a closer look at how involvement in foster care increases the risk of sex trafficking for vulnerable children and youth and how we aim to close the gap of exploitation through state change.
With nearly 400,000 children in foster care, it is crucial to look further into the experiences of youth in foster care and the vulnerabilities they face that could lead to child sex trafficking. Any child who enters foster care has previous trauma or adverse experiences that led to the removal from their family. Many instances of removal are based on neglect related to poverty that may have been avoided if parent(s) had received additional support, such as what is offered through the Families First Prevention Services Act.
A child’s placement may also be compounded by exposure to violence, incarceration of a parent, or other instability that the child experienced prior to removal. Once children enter foster care, they can experience additional trauma from repeated placement changes, inappropriate placements, or placed with strangers instead of family. Exploiters recognize the vulnerabilities of youth in foster care and know how to manipulate those vulnerabilities to take advantage of children, building up trust and a sense of support that the children are longing for. Exploiters may also seize the opportunity to exploit the basic needs of youth in foster care who run away from their placement, such as housing and food, to manipulate them to exchange sex for goods or money.
Not only are children in the foster care system vulnerable to child sex trafficking, but the 20,000 older youth transitioning out of foster care face an even greater risk for commercial sexual exploitation. As youth “age out” at 18, they lose their support systems with the turn of the clock and have to build adult lives without family or resources. Some youth have encountered the additional injustice of learning that money that belonged to them, and could have been used to support them after aging out, had been taken by the same. Reducing access to resources and support systems leads to heightened possibilities of negative experiences such as homelessness, unemployment, trafficking, and more.
To combat these adverse experiences, advocates, organizations, and leaders across the country are pushing for the extension of care and services beyond the 18th birthday to help older youth transition into adulthood while their brain continues maturing. By extending care and transitional services to serve youth after 18, the risk of exploitation can be reduced while also helping those transitioning out of care build up support systems and develop skills needed to thrive beyond foster care.
To make progress in protecting children in foster care, it is imperative that child welfare agencies are trained to screen for commercially sexually exploited children and appropriately respond to victimization. Some states have even extended services to include older youth or transitional services to support youth as they continue to develop and build supportive connections. In 2020, Shared Hope released an advanced legislative framework for our Report Cards on Child & Youth Sex Trafficking that reviews state laws focused on eradicating child and youth sex trafficking and expanding protections for survivors.
Within the framework, we recognized the vulnerabilities of foster care and older youth, calling for states to increase training for professionals working with foster care youth and extending care to older youth. Without expanding care to older youth, we are adding to their vulnerabilities and the possibility of commercial sexual exploitation. To adequately support older youth, services should be extended to those under 24, allowing them time to transition slowly into adulthood, building a stronger foundation for themselves. Federally, extending care to older youth is supported by several federal laws that allow states to access additional funds to support transition age youth and define anyone under 24 as a “child”. Learn more about foster care extension here.
There is a clear foster care to sex trafficking pipeline, but with continued advocacy for awareness of trafficking, trauma-informed responses, and the vital expansion of services to older youth, we can end it. Read our Report Card on Child & Youth Sex Trafficking and send the report to your legislators today.