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January 26, 2021

When We Fail Children in Foster Care, We Make Child Sex Trafficking Worse

Every January brings National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

Established in 2010, the federal designation inspires well-meaning awareness campaigns around the country every year. Still, the problem of human trafficking persists. 

In fact, it’s getting worse. 

A 2019 United Nations report warned that human trafficking is rising to “horrific dimensions.” Sexual exploitation of victims is the main motivation. Sadly, children now account for 30 percent of those being trafficked, with far more girls than boys being detected, the report said.

What’s more, this year’s observation comes at an especially perilous time for the movement against human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children. In the summer of 2020, a conspiracy arose and seized the mantle from real advocates and twisted it for their own purposes.

Last June, a conspiracy surfaced that an online retailer was somehow involved in a child kidnapping scheme because some of its furniture featured girl names and these names matched cases of missing children. This absurd conspiracy has been spread on Reddit forums and other social media channels.

These unfounded rumors undermine and obscure the work of true advocates against child abuse and sexual exploitation. And there’s a lot more work to be done. These statistics tell a sobering story:

  • The U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline reports that the number of cases grew 19 percent from 2018 to 2019 (the most recent period with available figures)
  • The organization identified 22,326 victims and survivors in 2019
  • Most of these victims (14,597) were exploited as part of sex trafficking activities
  • In 2019, the organization identified 4,384 traffickers and 1,912 suspicious businesses
  • The average age at the time of trafficking began is 17 years old
  • The top three identified sex trafficking types are escort services, illicit massage and pornography

At For The Children, we are deeply concerned with addressing the root causes that lead to children being exploited in the first place. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, the top five factors or vulnerabilities for trafficking victimization are:

  • substance use
  • runaway homeless youth
  • recent migration or relocation
  • unstable housing
  • mental health issues

To be sure, there is a direct connection between the foster care system and the kinds of kids who end up in sex trafficking. According to a recent report by the National Foster Youth Institute, an estimated 60 percent of child sex trafficking victims have a history in the child welfare system.

Human traffickers target the most vulnerable people in any given population. Many children in foster care face issues that make them open to exploitation and abuse, including past trauma, feelings of hopelessness and depression, drug abuse, homelessness, and a history of running away from group or foster homes. Instability creates opportunities for traffickers to bond with vulnerable children, and then these relationships are exploited to initiate sexual activity.

It’s important to think of child sex trafficking as the result of a cycle of abuse. Ending sex trafficking of children requires understanding and addressing the complex web of issues that perpetuate this cycle.

At For The Children, we believe fixing the persistent gaps in the foster care system will lead to a measurable improvement to the problem of child sex trafficking.


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