2021 Blog

Intersecting systems: foster care and domestic trafficking

When we were in Santa Cruz, the local rotary club planned an event the night we rode into town with representatives from various social clubs and organizations in the area. We were joined and hosted by the Women’s Club, a local anti-trafficking non profit called the Arukah Project, members of the rotary club, and other people interested in what we’ve been doing down the coast. At the event, our team got the chance to speak not only about the ride, but about the issue of trafficking and its accompanying myths, our fundraising goal, The Refuge, and NCMEC. While we were speaking, someone from the rotary club asked a question about the intersection of sex trafficking and foster care. One of the truly inspiring things for me throughout this summer has been seeing people ask hard questions and follow their curiosity, even when they don’t have all the answers. With that being said, that question in Santa Cruz spurred inspiration to write about the intersection of these two vastly complex systems that so commonly lead to equally complex trauma.

Foster kids are at high risk of sex trafficking and exploitation because it’s normal to develop meaningful connections in childhood. However, when the ability to cultivate long lasting, quality relationships is compromised by displacement, that desire for connection can be manipulated by a trafficker. The foster care system is flawed in many ways by the sheer number of kids circulating through it, a devastating lack of social workers working for change within the system, silence from people in power to reform it, and the underpaid and overworked nature of foster care work/advocacy. Because there aren’t enough social workers to do the work, there are too many cases for each of them to realistically manage with the diligence necessary to protect kids from abuse and exploitation.

More specifically, when a child runs away from a foster family, regardless of how loving and accepting that family may be, that child is in the care of a system that is not sustainable. It’s not legally the foster family’s responsibility to find the child if they do run away, and the system is functioning on the care of social workers who are spread too thin. If that foster youth runs, there are no systems in place to find them and connect them to trauma informed services. This “falling through the cracks” is where exploitation happens. This is how traffickers are able to so easily manipulate foster youth.

That lack of stability in the lives of foster youth interrupts child development, which provides an open door to traffickers.

Displacement is so hard on these kids that even being sold for sex every night appears to be more stable than adjusting to a brand new (in some cases dangerous/abusive) family every few months. In that same way, needs like food, shelter, attention, affection, etc consistently being met by a trafficker can make a lot more sense than moving from home to home.

Kids are *supposed* to develop attachment to their care takers, so when there is no consistent caretaker, a trafficker can step into that role seamlessly.

Many times, when folks who have grown up with a healthy attachment style and a loving family approach the subject of sex trafficking, it’s easy to think things like, “How could they stay?” or “How could anyone believe that’s true love?” If those are thoughts you have when thinking about a survivors’ experience, I think a more empathetic follow up question is, “Why do our systems fail to protect our most vulnerable kids from potential traffickers?” For example, the problem is not a thirteen year old’s trust that the person she believes is her “boyfriend” will love her in her position of vulnerability, or even her normal childhood desire to have a boyfriend at all. The problem is that desire and relational need for attention is exploited in order to convince that girl that being sold for sex is a normal part of any loving relationship. It’s so important to look at the sex trafficking industry as exactly that: an industry. A system, with many other systems, like our current broken foster care system, allowing it to flourish in the cracks and crevices of society.

Being aware of how truly complex sex trafficking is is a step to disarming the power structures that perpetuate it. We each occupy a space in society where foster care youth also occupy. Teachers, doctors, social workers, lawyers, law enforcement, healthcare workers, hotel employees, restaurant owners, bankers will at some point interact with a child or adult who has been in contact with the foster care system which means they’ve come even closer to an individual who is uniquely vulnerable to being trafficked. The reality of sex trafficking isn’t far away because populations who are societally susceptible to it are in our schools, friends with our children, under the care of our doctors, customers of our stores, patrons and employees of our businesses. The more we see this as “only happening to them” or “someone else’s problem,” the less protected, the less seen foster care youth become.


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