Due to their emotional vulnerability and lack of general stability, children involved with the child welfare system are more likely to be targeted by human traffickers, according to a recent report from the Children’s Bureau. This past July, the Children’s Bureau released a new guide for relevant agencies to improve responses to human trafficking.
There are two main forms of human trafficking: labor and sex trafficking, when a person is forced or coerced to provide labor services or commercial sex. Unfortunately, however, according to the report, the total number of child trafficking victims in the United States is unknown. Victims tend to avoid speaking to the authorities or service providers because they are scared of being criminalized or are threatened by their traffickers. And though traffickers sometimes use physical force to trap victims, they primarily psychologically abuse victims through coercion and violent threats, only making this crime harder to detect.
In recent years, there have been laws implemented at both the national and state levels to assist victims. For instance, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has an Office on Trafficking in Persons that provides victim assistance grants and public awareness programming. Also, the Department of Justice backs task forces that handle trafficking cases and provide victim services. At the state level, local governments have begun to enact “safe harbor” laws, which “decriminalize the acts of children exploited for commercial sex, while providing them important legal protections and access to services.”
Further, according to the report, states have started to bring together the efforts of law enforcement and child welfare agencies to respond to human trafficking. These agencies are often the first to come into contact with victimized children. Since traffickers frequently target foster youth who run away from care, state child welfare agencies are necessary stakeholders in any preventative efforts. In 2013, the HHS Administration on Children, Youth and Families found that 50 to 90 percent of victims of child sex trafficking had been previously involved with child welfare services.
Some state welfare agencies have taken the initiative to implement their own programming. In a 2014 study done by Casey Family Programs, out of 29 states, 13 counties and several U.S. districts, 64 percent of agencies’ staff had received training on child sex trafficking. Massachusetts, for instance, enforced a law in 2011 that coordinated the state’s Department of Children and Families, Department of Mental Health and other state agencies to provide minor victims with legal and health support.
The report also explains the importance of properly training child welfare professionals on screening and assessing actual and potential victims as well as creating programs that directly address needs unique to trafficking victims. They may require physical and behavioral health support, a stable place to live, legal help and academic and career training resources. Also, after having been displaced from society for potentially long periods of time, they may need help with basic life skills such as obtaining medical records or searching for jobs.
As is stated in the report, bringing together stakeholders, such as child welfare agencies, local governments, law enforcement and communities, can ensure that victims are better identified, rescued and helped. Federal and state governments can best help these child victims and protect those already vulnerable by unifying their efforts.