At Greater Risk: Human Trafficking and the Child Welfare System
“As child welfare agencies have increasing involvement with victims of trafficking, it becomes imperative that child welfare workers receive the training and resources necessary to help them identify children and youth who have been or are being trafficked- and that workers have access to the services and resources children and youth need in order to recover.”
Extensive evidence suggests that children in the foster care system are overwhelmingly at greater risk of being trafficked than those who are not. Lack of a stable living situation, physical separation from family and friends, as well as emotional vulnerability are some of the things that put them at greater risk. Human traffickers prey upon desperation for inclusion and innocence to manipulate youth into exploitative situations. However, we only are just beginning to see system-wide intro trainings to address such a grave form of abuse.
Evidence of a Problem
Emerging evidence indicates that child protection professionals are encountering children and youth who have been trafficked. For example, in 2013, the Department of Health and Human Services reported the following:
A survey conducted by the Los Angeles Probation Department revealed that 59% of the 174 juveniles arrested on prostitution-related charges in the county were in the foster care system; victims were often recruited by sex traffickers and pimps from group homes.
A report conducted by the California Child Welfare Council found that 50-80% of victims of commercial sexual exploitation, including child sex trafficking, are or were formerly involved with the child welfare system.
The Department of Children and Families in Connecticut reported that 86 out of the 88 children identified as child sex trafficking victims had received some form of child welfare services.
New Colorado Child Welfare Legislation
The response to human trafficking within Colorado’s child welfare landscape is changing dramatically. During the 2016 legislative session, a new bill (HB 16-1224) was adopted that defines sex trafficking of a minor as a form of child abuse when it involves third party abuse. Prior to this year, sex trafficking of a minor was only considered a form of child abuse warranting the involvement of child welfare if intrafamilial or institutional abuse was alleged. This definitional change has caused a paradigm shift throughout Colorado – particularly in human services and judicial systems.
The Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) is in the process of developing training protocols for case managers within the state child welfare system with limited funding. But beyond state child welfare workers, there is a clear need for expanded trainings to reach other agencies across Colorado who are directly involved in looking after the well-being of many of the 21,218 youth in Colorado’s child welfare system.
Who Serves At-Risk Youth?
Non-governmental case managers serve as a critical bridge between at-risk youth in the child welfare system, their foster families, the courts, and CDHS. Court-appointed special advocates (CASAs) also play an integral role in the livelihood of youth in the child welfare system as they work as intermediaries between courts and families to navigate the legal system. While most of these professionals receive extensive professional development on how to work with populations that have been abused and neglected, human trafficking has not traditionally been part of their training. Because of this, child victims of trafficking have not consistently been offered the services they need from the child welfare agencies they interact with. At the same time, foster parents are even less likely to have any background or knowledge about supporting child victims of trafficking. Increasing their capacity to provide appropriate care for past victims as well to identify potential victims is essential.
Addressing Gaps Through Training
In order to begin to address the gap in training protocols and realize the full vision of the new mandates, Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking (LCHT) is in the process of developing customized trainings for community-based nonprofits focused on families in crisis. LCHT is excited to partner with the many agencies, case managers, foster parents, CASA advocates, and others helping to inform a comprehensive child welfare response to human trafficking. As trainees become more equipped to identify victims, we will learn more about vulnerabilities, placements with high run rates and experiences of youth while on the run, as well as services that are effective in meeting youths’ needs. Ultimately, through these community and survivor informed trainings we hope to disrupt the so-called ‘pipeline’ from foster care to human trafficking.