Among children reported as likely victims of child sex trafficking upon running away from home, most have one thing in common—they were supposed to be looked after by the government.
In 2014, some 10,000 endangered runaway children were reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), a nonprofit that serves as a clearinghouse for reports on missing children. Nearly 1,700 of them were likely victims of sex trafficking and of those, 68 percent were in the care of social services when they went missing, be it a group home, a government facility, or foster care.
While these sobering statistics have been reported for years by the NCMEC, more recent data suggests that the problem is even more acute.
In 2017, nearly 25,000 runaways were reported to NCMEC and nearly 3,600 were likely victims of sex trafficking. Of those, 88 percent came from the social services system.
In fact, children in the social services system are the group with the highest prevalence of child sex trafficking, said Robert Lowery, NCMEC’s vice president who heads its missing children division.
The real scope of the problem almost certainly goes beyond NCMEC’s data. The FBI reported over 420,000 missing children in 2018, while Lowery said the actual number of missing children could be as high as 1.3 million a year.
While most of the missing children are found, return on their own, or weren’t missing to begin with, there still appears to be a strong link between child sex trafficking and the social services system.
In 2013, 60 percent of child sex trafficking victims recovered as part of an FBI raid in 70 cities had “some familiarity with or involvement with either group homes or the foster care system,” said NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson in 2013.
In 2012, Connecticut Department of Children and Families reported (pdf) that of 88 child victims of sex trafficking it identified, 86 had been “involved with child welfare services in some manner,” many of whom were “victimized while in foster care or residential placement.”
The question follows, why?
Stripped of Family
Over 440,000 children were in the social services system as of September 2017. Only in a minority of cases were the reasons for removing the children from their families grim circumstances, such as physical abuse (12 percent), parent incarceration (7 percent), or a parent’s death (1 percent). The most common reasons for the removals were neglect (62 percent) and drug abuse by one or both parents (36 percent).
While Lowery stressed that social workers are trying to do a “thankless job” as best they can, they have considerable power to have a child removed from his or her family based on minimal evidence. While the system differs from state to state, a social worker generally only needs to write an affidavit alleging neglect and, with no further evidence, obtain a removal order from a family court judge.
There have been cases where workers have fabricated evidence, twisted facts, or were even engaged in trafficking the children they were supposed to protect.
Once the child is in the system, it can be exceedingly difficult for the parents to get their child back.
Sometimes, social workers would form an impression of the family early on and “try to fit the evidence” to that impression, said Kevin Hickey, an Arkansas attorney with experience in foster system cases, in 2017. “So if they don’t like you or they think you’re a bad parent, you’re in for a long haul.”
As The Epoch Times previously reported, the system appears set up to incentivize workers to remove children, not necessarily to help families rehabilitate.
Hard to Come Back
It’s not hard to see that children in these situations, whether victimized by parents or the social services system itself, could be vulnerable to pimps eager to give them a false sense of belonging.
The My Life, My Choice Project based in Boston found that of the first 40 girls they worked with who were living in group homes within the foster care system, 38 had been approached by a pimp for recruitment, according to the 2009 National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: America’s Prostituted Children (pdf).
“What we have learned is overwhelmingly, while these kids may leave home voluntarily, while they may be runaways or any one of a variety or variations on that theme; they are seduced, they are tricked, they are lured into this practice and then they lose the ability to walk away,” said Ernie Allen, NCMEC president and chief executive, as quoted in the report. “These kids literally become 21st-century slaves.”
Pimps are especially skilled at developing dependency in their victims, bit by bit offering attention, care, and material rewards while isolating their victims from any other supports such as family, friends, and community. Once the victims are materially and emotionally dependent on them, they can withhold rewards or mete out punishment for disobedience.
Their main targets are children aged 12-14.
“It’s scary sad when a 14-year-old girl is walking down that street hand in hand with her captor and thinking, ‘This is normal, this is what 14-year-old girls do. I’ve been doing this since I was 12 years old,’” said Inspector Jim Klein, Commanding Officer of the NYPD Crime Prevention Bureau in a previous interview, commenting on an actual case the department handled.
The girl, from South Carolina, was tracked by her family to New York, where the NYPD found her and returned her.
“You want to hear the frustrating part about it? Right after that, she runs away again and she’s back in NYC,” Klein said. The NYPD caught her again, but this is a recurring phenomenon.
“When law enforcement takes these kids back home, many times these kids walk right back out the door on their own and right back into the clutches of these offenders,” said Lowery, who has a law enforcement background himself.
“We’re good at finding them. But, I tell you, the challenge is keeping them. … The frustration that we face is how we keep those children in a safe place?”
One thing that may help is investing some of the social service’s dollars into rehabilitating the families these children have been removed from or ran away from to begin with.
The Family First Prevention Services Act, which was included by Republicans in the 2018 budget, enables just that—to use the foster system’s funding on services that help prevent a child’s removal from their family and help families stay together.