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The Disturbing Connection Between Foster Care and Human Trafficking

The Disturbing Connection Between Foster Care and Human Trafficking

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An estimated 100,000 minors are trafficked for sex in the United States each year. The majority of these victims have a history in foster care (Children's Legal Rights Journal)Why is this the reality for so many children within the child welfare system?

Foster Youth Vulnerabilities 

Some of the risk factors that contribute to the exploitation of foster youths for trafficking include the following:

  1. Higher likelihood of a history of child maltreatment, and sexual abuse in particular.
  2. Lack of trust stemming from inconsistent caring adults and the temporary nature of out-of-home placement.
  3. Inadequate transition planning from adolescence to young adulthood.
  4. Poor skill-building for real-life needs.
  5. Higher risk of unemployment, financial instability, and housing insecurity.
  6. Post-discharge isolation and a lack of a physical and emotional safety net.
    (Social Work Today)

Other risk factors include having a history of familial violence, being a runaway or unaccompanied child, having issues at school, being introduced to sexual activities at a young age, and seeking independence.

How Traffickers Exploit Foster Youth

Traffickers exploit the fact that children in foster care — or those who have run away from care — may not have their familial, emotional, or basic needs met. The traffickers promise to meet those needs — at times employing psychological manipulation and financial incentives to woo them. Traffickers then use violence, drugs, or physical control to retain and exploit them. (Innocence Lost Working Group).

Moreover, youth may normalize unhealthy relationships because it may be all they’ve ever known. Traffickers know this and use this as a strategy to groom at-risk youth, securing their trust, then exploiting them sexually or for unpaid labor (Freedom Network USA).

Life After Foster Care + Trafficking Risks

The foster care system is frequently called a "pipeline to prostitution." Approximately a quarter of the almost 427,000 children in foster care are 14 years old or older. When a little over 18,000 youths age out of foster care at the age of 18 each year in the United States. These kids are immediately exposed to a plethora of potential hazards. Hazards include lack of viable employment, incarceration, pregnancy, lower levels of education, and homelessness, thus increasing their vulnerability to sex traffickers (Children's Legal Rights Journal).

Most youths who age out of the foster care system are left to survive on their own. We as a society do a poor job preparing our youth for the transition to young adulthood. Foster youth often struggle to get a job, gain skills for independence, find a place to live, and have healthy relationships. Without these core needs they are left more vulnerable to traffickers (Social Work Today).

The Needs of Foster Youth

Many foster youth face homelessness and unemployment. One participant in the Field Center study described being sexually abused for several years while in foster care. She left, only to begin trading sex with those who offered her “love, money, food, and a sense of safety,” stating, “I didn’t know what to do, or where to go, or who to turn to” (Wolfe).

Youths who lack a caring adult in their lives were more likely to be trafficked. When asked what could have helped prevent them from being in their situation, the most frequent response was having supportive parents or family members. Respondents cited learning independent living skills and having a supportive adult or mentor available to teach them skills as the primary assistance or information they wish they received in order to learn to live on their own. Financial literacy and money management skills were frequently named as significant knowledge gaps, and respondents cited setting up bank accounts, budgeting, establishing credit, paying taxes, and how to get and keep an apartment as critical life skills that they lacked. Without these skills and resources, they are susceptible to exploitation (Social Work Today).

As you can see, the intersection between human trafficking and other forms of exploitation is undeniable. In order to fight sexual exploitation we must serve organizations and families in our communities working with those in foster care. We can help bridge the gap by opening up opportunities to employ foster youth, teach them life skills, and surround them with a loving community.


Works Citied

  1. Emily Selig, The Overrepresentation of Foster Youth in Sex Trafficking, Children's Legal Rights Journal (2018),

  2. Debra Schilling Wolfe, MEd, Foster Care Youths at Risk for Child Sex Trafficking, Social Work Today,

  3. The Foster Care System and Human Trafficking, Freedom Network USA,

  4. Wolfe, D. S., Greeson, J. K. P., Wasch, S., & Treglia, D., Human Trafficking Prevalence and Child Welfare Risk Factors Among Homeless Youth: A Multi-City Study. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research.


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