It is a sad truth that America’s most deprived children are also among the most vulnerable to human trafficking. But, I speak from experience when I say how important it is to convert sadness into action if these children are to have any chance at a productive life.
Study after study shows that children already in the child welfare system are significantly more likely to be trafficked into domestic labor or sex slavery. The stories are many, diverse and heartbreaking. We also know that child trafficking victims too often do not receive services to address their unique needs once they enter the system.
Keisha’s mother abandoned her as an infant, and she bounced around foster programs throughout her childhood. She suffered sexual abuse at age 7, and, at age 12, was raped and forced into prostitution until age 17, when she was sent to juvenile detention.
Nine-year-old Evelyn left Cameroon on the promise of a better education, but instead was physically and verbally abused, and forced to cook, clean and care for other small children 24 hours a day. She escaped after seven long years with the help from members of her local church. Evelyn bounced around to several foster homes and was told not to tell her foster mother what she had been through, so she received no support to help her recover.
Christina was 12 years old when she first approached a homeless youth drop-in center. She reported that her mentally ill mother’s boyfriend was physically abusive to her entire family. The counseling center contacted child welfare, and Christina and all of her siblings were placed in different homes. Feeling unsafe, Christina eventually returned to her mother, where an adult couple “recruited” the teen into prostitution for two years.
The stories go on and on. Clearly, there is a connection — a dangerous intersection where child welfare and human trafficking meet. It only makes sense to try to address the problem through an existing system that frequently encounters trafficked children or those at high risk.
I know the importance of supporting these children, because I am a trafficking survivor myself. I came to America in 1997 at 17 years old, believing I would work as a nanny in Los Angeles. Instead, my trafficker took my passport, physically and verbally abused me, and forced me to work 18 or more hours every day. I did not speak English, and had no money. I was terrified and without options until a neighbor helped me escape, and the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking provided help and services that allowed me to rebuild my life.
Keisha, Evelyn, Christina and so many others like them deserve the same chance to live well after surviving the trauma of being trafficked. Since the child welfare system is the best channel through which to deliver much-needed services, we must ensure the system is ready to identify and respond to victims, as well as counsel children at risk.
One important step toward doing that is through legislation already being developed.