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.
While these sobering statistics have been reported for years by the NCMEC, more recent data suggests that the problem is even more acute.
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.
Stripped of FamilyOver 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.
Hard to Come BackIt’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.
“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.
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.