The State Department’s annual report on human trafficking pinpointed the prevalence of foster care history among child sex trafficking victims in the United States.
While in many other countries, the report listed foster care among the tools used to protect victims of human trafficking, “in the United States, traffickers prey upon children in the foster care system,” it stated (pdf).
“Recent reports have consistently indicated that a large number of victims of child sex trafficking were at one time in the foster care system.”
Just one federally funded trafficking hotline received nearly 120,000 calls, texts, and other messages and identified close to 11,000 potential trafficking cases in fiscal 2018. The hotline reported more than 3,400 cases to law enforcement and was notified about more than 1,000 investigations that were opened as a result.
Among people vulnerable to trafficking in the United States, the report listed children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, including foster care; runaway and homeless youth; unaccompanied foreign national children without lawful immigration status; American Indians and Alaska Natives; and drug addicts.
“Advocates reported a growing trend of traffickers targeting victims with disabilities and an increase in the use of online social media platforms to recruit and advertise victims of human trafficking,” it said.
Traffickers Seldom Kidnap Victims
Children in the social services system are the group with the highest prevalence of child sex trafficking, said Robert Lowery, vice president for the missing children division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), a nonprofit that serves as a clearinghouse for reports on missing children.
Based on the incomplete data available, it appears traffickers seldom kidnap their victims. Instead, they often contact children on social media, groom them over time, and eventually lure them away. As a result, the children would be reported as runaways. They also target children that ran away for other reasons.
They mainly target children from ages 12 to 14.
In 2017, almost 25,000 runaways were reported to NCMEC. Nearly 3,600 of the runaways were likely victims of sex trafficking; of those, 88 percent came from the social services system.
Child Welfare System
Whether the children in the system—some 440,000 of them—are victims of maltreatment by their families, victims of maltreatment in the system itself, or both, they many times languish in a limbo of not knowing who to trust.
Pimps have proved skilled at exploiting such vulnerabilities, commonly posing first as loving boyfriends, gradually isolating their victims from family, friends, or any other potential sources of support.
“While these kids may leave home voluntarily, while they may be runaways … 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, in a 2009 report (pdf).
The State Department’s report noted that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) inspectors general, in partnership with law enforcement, “piloted an initiative to find children missing from foster care, including those at risk of human trafficking.”
There seems to be some positive change underway. The reports of missing children decreased by about 9 percent in 2018, reaching record lows in available FBI data.