Sex trafficking in America is more prevalent than you think—and according to recent research conducted by NCMEC, 68 percent of “likely sex trafficking victims” were in the care of social services or foster care when they ran away. Lauren Kirchner wrote about the problem in Pacific Standard last week:
When the FBI rescued 168 children in a sex trafficking sting last year, it found that two-thirds of the victims had never been reported missing in the first place; the agency has also said that in all of its stings over the past few years, about 60 percent of the children rescued have had some experience in the foster care system or a group home …
The hard truth is that a lot of the risk factors for becoming victims of sex trafficking, or being recruited to transactional sex, overlap with the realities of life for many kids and teens in the foster care system: having teenage parents or parents struggling with substance abuse or mental illness; a history of sexual or physical abuse as children; and a lack of emotional, psychological, and financial support systems.
The story reminded me immediately of TAC’s new cover story (to be published online soon) for the March/April 2015 magazine, a story about the collapse of Britain’s working-class families. Schwarz outlines the enormous problem of sex trafficking in the U.K.—”the systematic sexual grooming, rape, and trafficking of more than 2,000 pre-teen and teenage girls, white and overwhelmingly working class”—and asks why this problem is so widespread. His answer? The breakdown of the working-class community: “Virtually all these girls had been left adrift—unmoored from and unprotected by the guidance, love, and authority of their families and community, which left them wholly exposed to predation at once brazen and methodical—[this] reveals a wrecked society that has failed in its most essential purpose.”
This is not just true of Britain. It is overwhelmingly true of our society, particularly of our foster care system. It’s a system that is meant to serve as a protection to needy children—but so often, the sheer size, lack of accountability, and lack of community involved in the process can lead to abuse or disarray. There are about 400,000 children in foster care, with 23,000 “aging out” each year. Some states lack the social workers necessary to truly know and care for each foster child. They cannot truly invest in each situation, or know for sure whether foster parents are doing a good job. Sadly, some foster parents are just in it for the money; others, while well-intentioned, are not prepared for the enormity of the job, and give up.
All of these things signal a breakdown of community, of a locally-focused care that would result in more dynamic and accountable placements and relationships. Foster kids don’t need a pipeline. They need a platoon. They need a steadfast, permanent community—a bastion of supporters and caregivers that will not constantly shift. The attitudes and mores necessary for proper care of the needy are rooted in the soil of community. Systems and pipelines, in their lack of place or permanence, relationship or roots, are sorely lacking. Local, relational platoons result in human flourishing and a sense of home—a place to return to, regardless of whether one “ages out” of the system.
Applying these principles to the system we currently have starts with the family: with the cultivation of strong, committed, loving foster care families, who are willing to love and tend to children, no matter how difficult, and who are willing to do whatever it takes to provide a lasting community for needy children.
There’s a small town in Belgium that has historically provided a home for the mentally ill. Mike Jay wrote about the community for Aeon Magazine last year: “When boarders meet their new families, they do so, as they always have, without a backstory or clinical diagnosis. … These are people who, whatever their diagnosis, have come here because they’re unable to cope on their own, and because they have no family or friends who can look after them.” Town inhabitants created a safe home of sorts, where “boarders” worked alongside and participated in family life.
But sadly, “Few families are now able or willing to take on a boarder,” writes Jay. “…Modern aspirations—the increasing desire for mobility and privacy, timeshifted work schedules, and the freedom to travel—disrupt the patterns on which daily care depends.” The virtues necessary for care of the needy often run counter to modern society’s “desire for mobility and privacy.” Opening our homes leaves us vulnerable. It means sacrificing our time, resources, and comfort.
I have known foster children who grew up feeling placeless, homeless, and unloved. But I’ve also met passionate, caring foster families, who opened their doors to needy or troubled children without hesitation. One such family welcomed in dozens of troubled youth over the years, and their son is now a social worker. Their actions planted seeds, and they began to grow a community. Such work is sorely needed—so that, regardless of the flaws of our foster care system, each child can someday know they have a place, a home, in the world.