Foster Youth are Disappearing into Dark World of Trafficking

“The more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons.” -Fyodor Dostoevsky

It is common to see our generation wearing t-shirts and bracelets and posting on social media about their support for efforts to combat human trafficking. All of today’s “awareness” campaigns are crucial because after all, how can you help solve a problem you do not know exists? However, I worry that awareness alone keeps these global social issues as just that—global social issues, issues that are so monumental we forget they affect individual lives. What is lost in this awareness is love for the individuals suffering from and affected by human trafficking. A question asked too infrequently is:

Who are these individuals and what are their stories?

Surprisingly the answer is many of those trafficked in the United States are former foster youth.

A recent study conducted in Los Angeles found that 59 percent of juveniles arrested for prostitution were in the foster care system at some point. Another study looked at the children reported as missing to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a population extremely vulnerable to trafficking, and found 60 percent were former foster children who ran away from their group or foster homes. In New York, a study found that 75 percent of children sexually exploited for commercial purposes spent time in foster care.

These statistics are staggering and often make the issue feel too overwhelming to dive into,  and  so we resort to wearing a bracelet or a t-shirt to show we care about the victims of trafficking and those in foster care. This generalized care keeps us from knowing the faces and stories of these children and prohibits our loving them in a real, tangible way, as people created in God’s image. As Jedd Medefind, President of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, recently said, “If we care about human trafficking, we must care for orphans and foster youth.”

In an effort to humanize this foster care to human trafficking pipeline narrative, the U.S. House of Representatives recently heard testimony from Withelma Ortiz, a young woman who spent time in foster care and was subsequently sexually exploited for commercial purposes. She stated that traffickers, pimps, and exploiters “have no fear of punishment because they rely on the lack of attention that occurs” when foster youth go missing. Those foster youth can then be easily apprehended and manipulated by pimps. 

This objectification leads the foster children to believe they are objects, making the transition to commercial sexual exploitation frighteningly easy..

Of course, increased awareness will help address the lack of attention from which the pimps are profiting. The government can help create this awareness and enhance law enforcement efforts to combat this abhorrent crime as they have in the past few months. In September of this year, President Obama signed into law the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act. The Act is an incredible step in the right direction of resolving this issue. It requires state child welfare agencies to determine appropriate services for children in the child welfare system who are victims of sex trafficking or are at risk of becoming victims. It also streamlines child support programs with federal programs to ensure these kids are not in an economic position that makes commercial sexual exploitation attractive. Most importantly, the Act improves adoption incentives programs. During the floor debate before the House of Representatives, Representative Dave Reichert of Washington said, “we’re not talking about a bill—legislation—that’s just words, we’re talking about the lives of children.” Representative Reichert understands this bill is not just a piece of paper—it affects children on a personal level.

While it is vitally important for the government to step in and create laws that protect foster care children from becoming sexually exploited commodities, the government’s efforts can only solve part of the problem. Laws and financial resources are necessary to combat this issue, but so is love, and love can only be communicated at the personal level. Christians should be some of the first people to love these children as the Bible makes clear God’s care and concern for the orphan (James 1:27; Isaiah 1:17; Psalm 10:18).

Churches have admirably and effectively taken up the cause to defend and love children in foster care. In 2010, a partnership between churches, Focus on the Family and the Colorado government cut the number of children in foster care waiting to be adopted by 50 percent. Efforts like these will have a tremendous impact on human trafficking as families who take in children from foster care can help prevent those children from exploitation.

Withelma, who testified before Congress, explained that youth in foster care are objectified and “begin to normalize the perception that their presence is to be used for financial gain.” She said that many children are in foster homes where the parents keep the money given to them by the state for their personal financial gain. This objectification leads the foster children to believe they are objects, making the transition to commercial sexual exploitation frighteningly easy as they go from financial objects in their foster parents’ home to financial objects in a brothel.Against these feelings of objectification, God says, “children are a gift from the Lord.” (Psalm 127:3).  To these children, and to all of us, the Creator of heaven and earth says “before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” (Jeremiah 1:5.)  

Withelma went on to say, “For myself, as unfortunate as it is to say, the most consistent relationship I ever had in care was with my pimp and his family.” Amidst this prevalent feeling of separation, isolation, and abandonment, Christians can offer a counter narrative to children who have faced abuse, neglect, despair, and exploitation. We must must fill the gap government cannot fill—loving these children personally, drawing them into Christian community and sharing the truth and hope of the gospel with them. As former President George W. Bush has said: “Government can hand out money, but government cannot put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives…only faith can do that.”

Yet often, the more awareness we have of the foster children being sexually exploited and trafficked, the easier it is to dehumanize the problem by making generalized commitments to fight in the global cause for justice. Of course, we play a role in electing officials and voting for legislation that helps achieves justice. But all of us, and especially Christians, have a second role to play: caring for each and every foster child affected by human trafficking in order to make justice a reality – one child at a time. These children deserve to be protected, but they also deserved to be loved, and love does not stem from a law or from financial resources, it must come from a person and a community. This love is often scary, difficult, and sacrificial, but we have the perfect example of this love in what Christ has already done for us. Christ’s death on the cross gives us the ability to live out this sacrificial love for children in foster care to keep them from becoming the faces of human trafficking in the future.

-Cristina Squiers graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Anthropology and a certificate in Values and Public Life.  She completed a fellowship in Philadelphia to start a mentoring program for those aging out of foster care. Cristina is now a first year student at SMU Dedman School of Law.