Protecting our kids from perilous exploitation in sex trafficking is an urgent concern of child protective and child welfare agencies. Disconcertingly, girls – and to a lesser extent, boys – who are in state care are at increased danger from sex traffickers. Reviewing 58 cases of sex trafficking of girls in foster care in Florida between 2007 and 2014, it is alarming to note that in 74 percent of the cases, the girls were exploited in sex trafficking AFTER placement in foster care. One of these girls plainly tells us, “Going to group homes has ‘turned me out’ … I didn’t do this until I got there.” Sixty percent of the girls exploited after placement in state care were black, and only 16 percent were white. The disproportionate rate of failure to protect black girls in foster care emphasizes the compounded disadvantage experienced by black girls in Florida.
All of the girls exploited in sex trafficking after placement in foster care had run away, with most of them being described as “chronic” runaways. Exploitation in sex trafficking of these girls frequently occurred when they were on the run. For instance, in one case the “pimp found her walking near the group home.” In the remaining cases, girls were recruited into sex trafficking by another girl placed with her in foster care. As reported by one girl, “another girl who resided at the same foster home approached her and asked her if she wanted friends and wanted to make money.” The knowledge that these specific risks – running away or recruitment by other foster care youth – are the two most common routes into exploitation in sex trafficking should be used to inform the sex trafficking prevention strategies of child welfare agencies. Mandating the development of individually-crafted safety plans, with a plan of whom to contact and where to go to get away from danger, would encourage the youth to think about their safety and recognize that their personal safety is extremely important to everyone. Foster care facility managers should not accept new youth without being provided information regarding any prior involvement in human trafficking to reduce the likelihood of placement of potential victim-recruiters for sex traffickers in the same facility with girls who could become new victims. To accomplish this, we need to create a database of suspected and verified child or adolescent victims of sex trafficking that would be accessible to child welfare case managers and facility intake supervisors or managers.
Two additional actionable findings emerged from the cases of girls who were trafficked out of foster care. First, group homes were in very high crime areas. Placing girls who are known to be chronic runaways in high crime areas seems morally negligent. Every group home for foster children goes through an approval process and must be licensed by the state. Evaluation of the neighborhood crime rate where the group home is located should be included in the approval process. Licensed group homes located in high crime areas should be closed or relocated. Second, there was evidence of poor training and preparation of staff at group homes to meet the task of protecting vulnerable girls from sex traffickers, with placement descriptions such as: “no/little supervision, youth come and go as they please;” “men came into the group home … caught in room with young man;” and, “young men seen jumping the fence of the group home.” Sufficient resources and training for group home staff and managers are urgently needed to ensure that these state-appointed caregivers are adequately equipped for the task of protecting youth from sex traffickers. We can and must provide better protection for girls and boys in foster care.
Reid, Joan A. (2018). System Failure! Is the Department of Children and Families (DCF) Facilitating Sex Trafficking of Foster Girls? In Andrea G. Nichols, Tonya Edmond, & Erin C. Heil (Eds.), Social Work Practice with Survivors of Sex Trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation. Columbia University Press.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.