Youth in foster care are vulnerable to exploitation
An excerpt from Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew’s testimony before Congress

United States Capitol Building in Washington DC USA

On October 23, 2013, foster care alumna and human trafficking survivor Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew testified before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Ways and Means as part of a hearing on preventing and addressing sex trafficking of youth in foster care. The following is an excerpt of her testimony. Her full remarks, as well as the transcript of the full hearing, can be found at

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I was a youth who grew up in foster care for pretty much the first 18 years of my life. Throughout that time, from the ages of 10 to 17, I was a victim of sexual exploitation and trafficking . . . .

I am here to tell you why I and other youth in foster care are rendered more vulnerable to be sexually trafficked. So, first of all, we accept and normalize being used as an object for financial gain. . . . As we all know, there is money provided to caregivers by the agencies to provide and serve the youth. Often, this money is used by caregivers for their personal use or the use of their families or biological children. . . . so what we began to do as the youth in care is normalize and accept that our purpose is of being a financial benefit of others. And so, because of this, it makes it harder for a youth and even for myself in my story to have seen the difference in bringing in finances into the foster home or of bringing money to an exploiter and their stable. (Editor’s note: a “stable” is a group of victims under the control of a single pimp.)

Know the Lingo
Knowing terms used by those involved in sex trafficking can help you identify and understand victims. For a glossary of terms visit

So foster care normalizes that other people are supposed to control our lives and circumstances. Multiple roles, such as public defenders and social workers, come in and fluctuate in and out of youths’ lives, most of whom are strangers to them. These are the people who dictate what happens in their lives where they live, what school they go to, and what decisions will be made for them socially. Foster care creates an ever changing environment of youth having to adapt to strangers making life decisions, and this is conducive to the parallel process of exploiters who seek to keep control of a youth’s life.

We also lack opportunities to gain meaningful relationships and positive attachments. How this plays out for others and for myself, opportunities to build these skills, such as problem solving or for what it means to reconcile after an argument, are denied, and instead we are just moved to another placement. For myself, as unfortunate as it is to say, due to the over 14 plus placements I have endured, the most consistent relationship that I ever had while in care was that of my pimp and his “family” . . . .

In care, we become accustomed to being isolated, much like the victims of domestic violence. By adapting to multiple moves from home to home, this allows us to easily adapt when traffickers move us multiple times from hotel to hotel, city to city, and/or State to State.

And these exploiters go without fear of punishment due to the lack of attention when young people from this population go missing. No one looks for us. I really want to make this clear: no one looks for us. No one keeps us on their radar. The system just makes no effort. There are no AMBER alerts, no posters when youths from the foster care system go missing. And, oftentimes, group homes will avoid reporting youth missing due to interrupting payment.

And . . . it is always assumed that we have willingly run away. Many times, that is not the case. Many times, we are kidnapped or other circumstances. This the exploiters use to their advantage. The life instability of foster care makes it easier for exploiters to hide their involvement, which continues to perpetuate our population’s vulnerability.

I believe child welfare agencies should be working with local programs which support and provide resources to youth who have been sexually exploited to enhance their . . . transition into a healthier lifestyle. They also can learn ways to identify these youth. For myself in care, there was many times that I had many absences and people knew I was absent . . . those were red flags that should have been paid attention to.

Today Ms. Pettigrew is a policy consultant, trainer, and moderator.


Tips for Caring for a Trafficking Victim

Caring for young people who have survived sex or labor trafficking is new territory for most resource 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.

Find a real live support person. Helping a victim 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. 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 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 them 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 youth 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).