Vol. 18, No. 2 • May 2014

Human Trafficking: What Foster Parents Should Know

A 17-year-old in foster care runs away to be with her
"boyfriend," who makes her work as a prostitute.

Two children are made to work long hours in a
restaurant when they should be in school.

* * * * * * * * * *

Most people know that because of risks to the safety and well-being of children, these scenarios would be of concern to a child welfare agency. What many do not know is that these scenarios also describe possible instances of human trafficking, a serious crime punishable under federal law by up to 20 years in prison (Federal Criminal Code, 18 USC ยง 1584).

By knowing how to support victims, foster parents can help bring safety and healing to children traumatized by human trafficking.

Human Trafficking
Human trafficking is a form of modern day slavery. According to the Polaris Project (2010) there are two types:

  • Sex trafficking is recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for a commercial sex act that is induced by force, fraud, or coercion. When the victim is under 18, no force, fraud, or coercion is necessary.
  • Labor trafficking is recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

Human "trafficking" does not necessarily involve moving people from one country or place to another.

Of the victims of human trafficking, some are U.S. residents and some are non-residents. Almost all have some vulnerability that can be exploited or manipulated by the trafficker (Snyder, 2012).

Sex trafficking victims are often runaways, troubled, or homeless youth (U.S. Dept. of State, 2011). An estimated 293,000 young people in the U.S. may be at risk for being trafficked for the sex trade (Estes & Weiner, 2001).

Victims, Not Criminals
Children and youth are often seen as juvenile prostitutes or criminals and placed in the juvenile justice system. This is a mistake. Minors are not culpable for crimes committed due to human trafficking. Under the law, children and teens involved in these crimes are victims, not perpetrators.

Trafficking's Impact
There is overlap between child trafficking and child maltreatment. Children involved in sex trafficking are repeatedly abused by pimps, madams, and sex buyers; 95% of teens who are prostituted were victims of prior sexual abuse either by family or close acquaintances (Estes & Weiner, 2001; IOM, 2007). According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, the impact on victims' well-being can be long-term and severe. Physical effects can include:

  • Sleeping and eating disorders
  • Sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS, pelvic pain, rectal trauma, and urinary difficulties from working in the sex industry
  • Back, hearing, heart, or lung problems from toiling in dangerous agriculture, sweatshop, or construction conditions

Psychological effects on victims can include fear and anxiety; depression and mood changes; guilt and shame; Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and bonding with the trafficker ("Stockholm Syndrome").

Red Flags: Possible Signs of Child Trafficking
Labor Trafficking
Sex Trafficking

Family relationships not clear (may or may not
present as formal guardian)

Child may not be the child of "parent" in the home
-- No evidence of legal guardian
-- Works for "aunt" or "uncle"

Excluded from family events (e.g., church, vacations, parties)

Physically exhausted; works long hours

Child is fearful of family he lives with

Child is responsible for child care, elder care, or cleaning--often hidden as "chores"

Excess cash

Hotel keys

Chronic runaway/homeless youth

Lying about age/false ID

Inconsistencies in story

Has engaged in prostitution or commercial sex acts

Any mention of a pimp/boyfriend

Refers to employer/boyfriend
using slang such as "Daddy"

Source: Kaufka Walts, French, Moore, & Ashai, 2011

Tips for Caregivers
Caring for young people who have survived sex or labor trafficking is new territory for most foster parents. Here are some tips adapted from the Ohio Child Welfare Training Program (2014) to get you started.

Learn all you can about human trafficking, its impact, and how to help children who have experienced it. The National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections offers links to a rich array of information--go to http://bit.ly/1m14EY3.

Find a real live support person. Helping a trafficking victim in your care is easier if you have someone experienced you can turn to for insight and advice. Work with your licensing worker and/or the child's social worker to find the right person.

Think physical safety. Some traffickers are violent. Therefore, consider the following with your social worker:

  • Youth may try to reconnect with traffickers. Explain to youth why this is a bad idea. At the same time, it may be necessary to restrict visitors and monitor calls and electronic communications (texts, etc.).
  • Contact with children's families. NC strongly supports shared parenting, but special care must be taken when human trafficking has occurred. Some families were directly involved in the trafficking; others may be watched or pressured by traffickers to share the child's information. Discuss contact with family with your agency before it occurs.

Think psychological safety. To recover from trafficking, children must feel psychologically safe. You can help children by:

  • Helping them identify things that instill the feeling of safety; eliminate or minimize things that make them feel unsafe.
  • Teaching them to understand and manage difficult behaviors. Help them see the links between what they think, feel, and do; help them take control of their actions.
  • Helping them develop a strengths-based understanding of their life story. Help children overcome negative or distorted beliefs about their histories by being a safe listener for them.
  • Help children understand and manage overwhelming emotions. By providing calm, consistent, loving care, you set an example and teach children to define, express, and manage their emotions.
  • Give them opportunities to create, have fun, and play. Celebrate their strengths.

Ensure children get a comprehensive assessment and all services they need. After trafficking a young person might need medical care, academic intervention, legal assistance, or mental health treatment.

Be ready to reframe. Many young people see themselves as strong-willed survivors of trafficking, not victims. They may even be defiant. Use this as a strength to help empower youth and rebuild their self-esteem.

Be a constant, patient presence. Building trust with trafficking victims can take time. Sex trafficking dynamics can cause youth to repeatedly return to a pimp. "Programs working with these youth have learned the importance of being a constant presence for these youth, which means allowing them to return many times" (p. 2).

To view references cited in this and other articles in this issue, click here.

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~