The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” ~ Hubert H. Humphrey
The mission of child welfare is to keep children safe. So, the role of child welfare professionals in the anti-trafficking movement seems obvious. But the practical integration of child welfare agencies into the response can be much more challenging. In order to better examine the role of child welfare in combatting this crime, it’s helpful to look first at how some children become trafficking victims in the first place.
Not a Hollywood Story
Contrary to a popular narrative presented in the movie Taken, young girls are not typically snatched from their bedroom and sold into the commercial sex industry. In reality, minors find themselves in trafficking situations for very complex reasons. Wilson and Butler (2013) observed that childhood sexual abuse, running away, and homelessness are precipitating factors in many instances of human trafficking. Rachel Lloyd, a survivor of human trafficking and founder of the anti-trafficking organization GEMS, shared this: “For girls who have experienced incest, sexual abuse, or rape, the boundaries between love, sex, and pain become blurred. Secrets are normal and shame is a constant. The lessons learned during sexual abuse are valuable ones for recruitment…numerous studies estimate that 70-90 percent of commercially sexually exploited youth and adult women in the sex industry were sexually abused prior to their recruitment.” (Lloyd, 2012, p.65)
A Manipulative Pathway
In her book Girls Like Us, Lloyd tells the story of a fourteen-year-old girl who runs away from her group home. She is wandering around the city when she meets “Charming,” a young man who offers to take her out for lunch. She gratefully accepts, excited about the attention. Charming compliments her, tells her that she is beautiful. She tells him about her rough home life: her father in prison, her mother a drug addict, and her move from many different foster homes and group homes. Charming offers for her to come live with him. She would be his girlfriend and they would be a “family.” For a young girl who had only dreamt of a family, the proposal seemed like the best thing that could have ever happened. In just a few short weeks, Charming asks for her help to dance and strip at a club. She is grateful for all that he has done for her so she agrees. In the aftermath, he drugs her and forces her to prostitute.
Lloyd’s story highlights how children who have been abused or neglected are more vulnerable to traffickers who leverage manipulation to make their victims feel safe and valued. Notably, many of these children have contact with the child welfare system before, during, and after they have been trafficked. Highlighting and understanding this connection is a critical step to developing a response.
Colorado Child Welfare
The role of child welfare in supporting human trafficking victims is complicated. The child welfare department is often overwhelmed and overworked. In Colorado alone, there are 64 counties that directly administer child welfare services. In 2013, counties in Colorado received more than 83,000 referrals and provided services to about 37,500 children. (ICF International, 2014) In reality, the existing child welfare system simply does not have the capacity to handle all the case management needs that are presented.
Progress Through Legislation
Just this April, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed HB 16-1224: Treat Trafficking of Children as Child Abuse into law. The legislation marks a key milestone in connecting Colorado’s Child Welfare system to the anti-trafficking movement. Prior to this law, child welfare was only required to get involved with a human trafficking case if a family member was exploiting the minor. With the passage of HB 16-1224, Colorado child welfare professionals will be required to open a case if the child is being trafficked, including during instances of a minor being trafficked by a third party.
The bill also requires that Colorado’s child welfare system create a screening tool to help identify victims of trafficking, monitor that data, and then proceed to provide services to the victim. The Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking has participated in the development of the proposed tool through the Human Trafficking Task Force Group (HTTG). Ultimately, the work of the HTTG will lead to a training series aimed at county-level caseworkers across Colorado.
Building the Capacity to Respond
Despite the amazing progress being promoted through the new law, there are still many challenges to address. Consider child victims of trafficking who had negative experiences in the past within the child welfare system. How will they feel about returning to the very institution that may have pushed them to the streets in the first place? Additionally, the response of government child welfare leaders is only one piece of the puzzle. Non-government child welfare organizations, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs), and foster care families also need to be appropriately equipped to address this crime.
That’s why The Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking is developing targeted trainings in 2017 for child welfare professionals outside of the state’s system. In the end, Colorado can emerge as a leader in demonstrating what a comprehensive response to human trafficking within child welfare looks like.