Foster youth and sex trafficking: Can the system that failed these kids now save them?

Published on
July 18, 2017

While reporting on a story about sex trafficking and the Super Bowl, I met a 21-year-old survivor in Oakland. She had just aged out of foster care. Throughout her childhood, she lived in over 30 different homes. She recounted how in some homes she’d experienced emotional and physical abuse. In a home she ran away from, her foster mother’s new husband had raped her. The first time she felt loved was when she met the man who would become her pimp. She was 16 when he began selling her body.

“When you’re a foster girl, you feel unwanted,” she said. “You’ve been through so much neglect and abuse. And then when you have a man tell you, ‘I love you, I’’ll take care of you, I’ll protect you,’ you want to believe him.”

Sadly, I learned that this survivor's story wasn’t unusual. Studies show that up to 80 percent of sex-trafficked children have a history with child welfare involvement. Two organizations serving sex-trafficked youth in Oakland reported that over half the victims they served had spent time in foster care. This correlation is not unique to California — a New York City study showed that 75 percent of sexually exploited children had lived in foster homes.

And this issue glares with a racial disparity: Throughout the nation, African-American youth are disproportionately represented in both the foster care population and in the numbers of children who are exploited for commercial sex.

Like the young woman I spoke with, the majority of victims stay with their trafficker because they fall in love with him. Many develop a trauma-bond — similar to Stockholm syndrome — that evokes extreme loyalty to their trafficker. Victims often deny they are being exploited, protect their trafficker and seldom testifying against him. Many don’t even realize they are victims.

For decades, sexually exploited youth have been treated as criminals in California. Many victims have been arrested and saddled with a criminal record, while their traffickers and purchasers are rarely penalized. In recent years, most juvenile sex trafficking survivors who’ve received services in California have done so through the juvenile justice system. Detention has kept victims safe from their traffickers for short periods of time, and specialized courts and probation departments have offered wrap-around services and diversion programs that provide incentives for victims to follow through with treatment. But the very nature of going through the juvenile justice system is traumatic for victims, and it labels them as criminals.

Now that prostitution has been decriminalized for youth under the age of 18 in California, sex-trafficked youth are no longer arrested and funneled through the juvenile justice system. Instead, they are referred to Child Protective Services, and funneled through the child welfare system — a much more appropriate system to serve victims of sexual abuse, youth advocates say. But it’s also the same system the majority of these youth previously spent time in.

Often, as soon as they can, “recovered” victims run straight back to their trafficker. “The majority of the time, they run within 20 minutes,” says Ann Trombetta, FBI special agent in the Northern District of California. “Sometimes they get through the door and they turn around and run right out.” Sometimes, on their way to placement, they jump from social workers’ cars when they stop at a red light. Since they aren’t committing a crime, they can’t be detained by law enforcement. And it would be illegal for child welfare professionals to lay a hand on them or detain them against their will.

It’s a paradox — we don’t want to criminalize victims, yet we do want to keep them safe in a system that’s already over-burdened, underfunded and facing large-scale reform. While no one questions that these children are victims, many question the ability of California’s child welfare system to protect them.

For my 2017 National Fellowship project, I will explore this paradox, investigating the reasons why so many former foster youth are victims of sex trafficking, what has changed in the way that sex-trafficked youth are served in California since decriminalization, and the challenges and solutions that child-serving agencies are finding in their efforts to protect the state’s most vulnerable population.

[Photo by Nils Hamerlinck via Flickr.]