Foster care is sometimes unavoidable. But in cases where there is an option for children to stay with their families, that may be the better choice. Foster care, argues author Christian O’Neill in his new paper, “From Foster Care to Trafficking: An Analysis of Contributing Factors,” can make children more vulnerable to sex traffickers.
“The question it seems everyone wants to ask is: How can we better safeguard children in foster care from villainous traffickers.” he writes.
“Perhaps instead we should be asking, What if we redirected the majority of our efforts away from out-of-home care and toward preventive, family-preservation services? Because the reality is that most parents charged with neglect do not desire to hurt their children; they may be desperate and stressed, but they are rarely malicious. Child traffickers, however, are.”
Previous research (though not enough) shows that involvement in the child welfare system makes children more vulnerable to exploitation. A report published by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2014 estimated that 85% of commercially sexually exploited girls had a history with the child welfare system. In 2013, the FBI reported that 60% of children recovered from commercial sexual exploitation had been a part of out-of- family care in some capacity.
O’Neill, who was a child welfare worker for more than two decades, saw first-hand how the system not only failed at times to secure children from trauma, but also inflicted its own emotional and mental wounds. Being separated from their parents is a heartbreaking process for children. It can be traumatizing for them to be removed from their homes and familiar environment and assigned to live with strangers. Sometimes there is no viable parent. But in other cases a decision to separate children from their families is based on a vague finding of “neglect,” a broad and subjective category that allows race- and class-based biases to influence the decision to remove a child from their home. Then the instability of the foster care system itself, which can lead to multiple placements, means minors can grow up without the security and care they need. The resulting psychological and emotional vulnerabilities are exploited by traffickers.
The process of being frequently uprooted can disrupt kids’ academic and social progress, leaving them with few job skills. As the opioid crisis has put more pressure on families, the child welfare system in some states has been overwhelmed, and foster children have fallen through the cracks.
Often feeling like the system strips them of their agency, many foster children run away from placement. Case workers are sometimes unmotivated to search for runaway foster children due to a lack of resources and the assumption that they don’t want to be found anyway. Children become homeless, a key risk factor for trafficking. And knowing caseworkers aren’t actively searching for these children only emboldens traffickers.
Finally, O’Neill says there is a pernicious financial link between foster care and trafficking. The financial support that foster parents receive from the government to care for children can leave foster children feeling objectified and monetized. Being “monetized” by a trafficker may feel not much different. One survivor of sexual exploitation, Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, who is quoted in O’Neill’s paper, testified that youth’s experience in the foster care system normalizes “being used as an object of financial gain by people who are supposed to care for us…
“Therefore,” she said, “when youth are approached by traffickers...they don’t see much difference between their purpose of bringing finances into their foster home and bringing money to traffickers.”
O’Neill urges rethinking child welfare policies to increase and reallocate resources from out-of-home care to family-preservation services. Such a shift, he believes, could help strengthen families and build children’s defenses against trafficking. And see his insightful recommendations for the many individuals who have roles within the child welfare institution, including caseworkers, clinicians, communities and policy makers.