Are The Links Between Foster Care And Trafficking A Fixed Reality?

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.

No Vacancy: How You Can Fight Child Sex Trafficking On Your Next Trip

In recent years buying fair trade coffee and clothing has become mainstream but something we at ECPAT-USA have noticed is that we never hear our friends say they are traveling responsibly. The concept of responsible travel is similar to that of purchasing fair trade goods— you choose to spend your money ethically and with respect for human rights.

Choosing a hotel is an opportunity to use your purchasing power for good—to help stop child sex trafficking.

Last week, ECPAT-USA released a report, No Vacancy for Child Sex Traffickers, which shows the extent and impact of our training efforts. Over the next few weeks, we will share a series of blogs that will teach you about the issue, highlight stakeholders who can help fight child sex trafficking, and give you ideas from the report for how to get involved. Later this week we will be highlighting hotels, and the steps they can take to combat this scourge. In this  we’ll give you tips for how to be a more responsible traveler!

While child sex trafficking may seem like a crime that happens in far away places, it happens more than you think throughout the United States.

With the use of online classified ads, child sex trafficking is not only on the streets, but also behind the closed doors of local hotel rooms. Pimps rent rooms in hotels, then go online to create an ad in adult sexual services pages, and finally sell victims right out of the hotel or have victims meet purchasers at nearby hotels.  

While the hospitality industry is not responsible for trafficking, it does have an important role to play in helping to stop it.

Hotel rooms are a preferred venue for the sale of children because traffickers believe they are anonymous at hotels, giving them a sense that there is little risk in their behavior. For this reason, hotel associates are more likely to witness trafficking than the average person. In response, we ask hotels to train their associates on the indicators of trafficking and how to respond to it.

Many hotels are doing just that. The report we released last week, No Vacancy for Child Sex Traffickers, shows that half of all hotels in the United States have had training for their associates. It also lists which hotels in the U.S. have signed ECPAT’s Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct, a set of guidelines travel companies, including hotels, agree to take to combat child sex trafficking; one of those steps is providing training.


One hotel brand leading the way on training is Marriott. Marriott requires associates at all the properties in their portfolio to take human rights training that covers trafficking, which is a step beyond some hotels that just recommend training.

Accor Hotels, another ECPAT-USA partner, has taken an innovative approach on this issue by tying bonuses for their managers to training. Accor managers must have held anti-trafficking training at their properties to get their bonuses. Numerous other hotels are implementing their own initiatives.

On your next trip, stay at one of these hotels.

By choosing to stay at a hotel that has employees trained to address the commercial sexual exploitation of children, you can feel good knowing that you’re supporting businesses taking a stand, and real steps, against child sex trafficking.

Or, if your favorite hotel has not signed The Code, use this letter to ask them to sign.

Every child has a right to grow up free from sexual exploitation and trafficking, and you can help by spending your travel dollars at a hotel working on this issue.

To learn more about traveling responsibly, read our full report and visit our responsible traveler page.

Is There Really No Vacancy for Child Sex Traffickers?

Is There Really No Vacancy for Child Sex Traffickers?

Why it’s important to study how many hotels have anti-trafficking training

By Michelle Guelbart, MSW, and Julia Wejchert


When ECPAT-USA started working with hotels to combat child sex trafficking 13 years ago, very few people understood the urgency of our work. We knew that victims are often isolated from their friends, family, and community members, and we also knew that the hospitality industry is one of few industries in a unique position to recognize and identify victims. Unfortunately, our outreach to hotels was often met with shock and denial. We heard hotel after hotel respond that this may be happening but “not in my hotel.”

As we made progress with the general public through awareness campaigns and outreach, we also worked with hotel brands to implement policies and training to begin alerting hospitality associates of their unique role in stopping human trafficking. Slowly things began to change and we reached a turning point. Corporate policies against human trafficking and child exploitation are touted as industry standard. Training (even mandated) is now recognized as best practice. Many hotels train their associates to recognize the indicators of child sex trafficking and respond appropriately. But until now, no one knew exactly how many hotels had training.

The report we released today, No Vacancy for Child Sex Traffickers, provides exactly that information. It is the first of its kind, providing data from hotel properties across the United States about their training. Specifically, it shows that half of all hotels in the United States have had training for their associates. It also reports that over 80% of hotel associates who had training had increased awareness of child sex trafficking, and over 90% of managers with training who said they had increased knowledge in the past 3 years said the increase was a result of their training.

Another question this report answers is “where is anti-trafficking training coming from?” The results show that at least 35% of hotels with training were using programming  developed by ECPAT-USA. 

Additionally, most training, whether it was developed by ECPAT-USA or someone else, was distributed by hotel brands. This means that individual hotel properties usually use training they get from their parent companies like Hilton, Hyatt, or Wyndham. Therefore, when a hotel brand decides to take on an issue, it can be life changing and far reaching. And in the case of human trafficking awareness training, it can be life saving.

This training is so important because hotel rooms are used by pimps for child sex trafficking. An issue that was previously confined to the streets has now, with the use of online classified ads, also moved to the Internet and behind the closed doors of hotels rooms. Pimps rent rooms in hotels, then go online to create advertisements in adult sexual services pages, and finally sell victims in hotels or have victims meet purchasers at nearby hotels.

While the hospitality industry is not responsible for the exploitation, it does have an important role to play in helping to stop it. By training their associates to recognize indicators and providing a clear, safe response procedure hotel staff can follow if they do see something suspicious, hotels can help to protect children from exploitation.

While the report shows exciting progress in this area, there is still work to be done.

That half of U.S. hotels report using training is a significant achievement, but the other half of hotels still need to be reached. Additionally, the findings in our report suggest that some properties who have access to trainings through ECPAT-USA partnerships are not taking full advantage of training opportunities. While many are utilizing ECPAT-USA training, we must continue to work to ensure that all hotel associates have access to such important programming. 

In the next few weeks we will be publishing a series of blog posts about what travelers, the hotel industry, and governments can do to continue the fight against child sex trafficking. Together we can ensure that no child is bought or sold.

ECPAT-USA Releases “No Vacancy for Child Sex Traffickers Impact Report”

Brooklyn, NY (Sept. 26, 2017) – ECPAT-USA released a report today: “No Vacancy for Child Sex Traffickers Impact Report: The Efficacy of ECPAT-USA’s Work to Prevent and Disrupt the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Hotels.” The report details the results of ECPAT-USA’s work with the travel and tourism industry to protect children from sex trafficking.

The first of it’s kind, the report shows what percentage of hotels in the United States have anti-trafficking training for their associates. Based on the findings of an evaluation study conducted by the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, the report shows that half of all hotels in the U.S. have training about how to prevent and disrupt child sex trafficking and at least 35% of those have ECPAT-USA training, but there is still more work to be done.

“We are so proud of the progress that has been made with the hospitality industry but progress must continue,” said Michelle Guelbart, director of private sector engagement for ECPAT-USA and co-author of the report. “Hotels must mandate training across the board and ensure that this issue is institutionalized through new hire training.”

ECPAT-USA is a non-profit organization whose mission is to create a world where no child is bought, sold or used for sex. The International Labor Organization estimates that nearly 21 million people around the world are trapped in modern day slavery. Youth are strategically targeted and manipulated by pimps who use hotel rooms as venues to abuse children, believing that systems are not in place to protect the victims. With the use of online classified ads, child trafficking is both on the streets and behind the closed doors of local hotel rooms.

ECPAT-USA released the report, which was co-authored by ECPAT-USA’s private sector engagement associate, Julia Wejchert, at a panel event at the Salvation Army International Social Justice Commission. Carol Smolenski, ECPAT-USA’s executive director moderated the panel. Speakers included Michelle Guelbart, MSW, director of private sector engagement at ECPAT-USA and one of the report’s authors, Craig Kalkut, VP, government affairs at American Hotel and Lodging Association, Katrina Owens, survivor and founder of MPower Mentoring, and Faith Taylor, SVP, global corporate social responsibility at Wyndham Worldwide. The panel was co-sponsored by the NGO Committee to Stop Trafficking in Persons, The Salvation Army, and the UN Presbyterian Office.

To read the report, visit