Lance and Nicole welcome Sonya Edwards, a volunteer for Shield North Carolina and foster mother. Sonya and Nicole interview Dr. Karen Lambie, a Shared Hope Ambassador on the link between foster care and human trafficking.
As the nation becomes more aware of human trafficking, it seems that the public’s reaction is to cling to tightly to their children in parks and stores. Media stories circulate about a mothers and young children followed in large businesses such as Costco or Ikea and the assumption is that kidnappers are lurking, ready to grab a toddler at the first instance that the mother looks away. But according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, less than 1% of missing children are from non-family abductions; and although those abductors have only nefarious intent, even that 1% is not comprised of all human trafficking. However, of the 23, 500 runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in seven were trafficked.
Traffickers are typically looking for vulnerable youth to prey on. Children without homes or family. Kids who have already experienced neglect and abuse so that they can be more easily manipulated. Given those facts, it should come as no surprise that, according to the National Foster Youth Institute, 60% of trafficking victims have had the foster care system in their history. In 2018, there were more than 400,000 children in foster care.
In 2014, the US passed the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, which requires each state’s plan for foster care and adoption assistance to develop policies and procedures for children within their care who might be trafficking victims. The Family First Prevention Act also seeks to improve the quality of foster care by giving state agencies the option of using funds on prevention care for foster candidates to keep children placed with their families.
Although there are national and state efforts to improve the foster care system, more attention must be focused on preventing trafficking within the system. Foster children often run away from their placements, however it was until the past decade that states started passing legislation that mandated missing children from foster care be reported. Not all foster families or social workers are given adequate training on identifying the signs of human trafficking and in many states, there is a lack of resources for children who have been identified as trafficking victims.
Given the realities, to effectively address the exploitation of children, we must take a hard look at one of our country’s most burdened but overlooked social services: the foster system.
Dr. Karen Lambie has a PhD in educational psychology. There is a complex relationship between foster care and commercial sexual exploitation of children. As a foster parent, Karen learned about this connection as a foster mother. Karen had a young girl in her home who had become pregnant through her stepfather trafficking her for drug money. In her case, she was trafficked by a family member (familial sex trafficking) before she entered foster care. There are some foster parents that will actually traffic their foster children. Sonya had a child in her home who was trafficked by uncle in Texas. She was originally from Honduras and then sold to another ring in Tennessee.
Karen says that 60-80% of our trafficked children are in foster care or have been in foster care prior to. In considering children in general who are at-risk, adverse childhood events (ACE’s) must also be considered. ACE’s could be suicide of a family member, domestic violence, drug dependency, etc. These ACEs make children more vulnerable; ACE’s are often what puts children at risk of trafficking.
Foster children often want to run away in the foster care system. Running away puts them at very high risk. 1 in 3 children who run away are approached by traffickers within the first 48-72 hours. Traffickers are looking for them at homeless shelters. If traffickers may use children in a shelter to recruit others within the shelter. Truck stops and bus stops are other places where children may go. Lyn Leeburg of Truckers Against Trafficking provided information on outreach through the trucking industry.
What are some signs that a foster child might be trafficked or is being trafficked? Grades might start to drop, the mood might change to anger or depression, if they become secretive, if the child is on drugs (traffickers often use drugs to control them), tattoos/branding, evidence of physical abuse, burn marks in areas covered by clothing, or the child may have new items of value that the trafficker has purchased for them. Tattoos may be in a place on a child’s inner lip.
The Slave Across the Street by Theresa Flores tells the story of how she was trafficked by some high school boys in the 80’s. For 18 months she was trafficked while also going to school. Theresa was from a 2 parent, stable home.
Often these children feel like “throw-aways” and so they may stay with their trafficker who makes them feel wanted. The trafficker may also use elements of fear and there may be trauma-bonding that makes it difficult for the child to leave.
NCMEC said that 1 in 7 of the 25,000 runway children are actually trafficked. These children may be in a strange city, cold, hungry and homeless and may take up someone on an offer. Part of the solution is to teach the kids the signs that traffickers use, internet safety, and the dangers of running away.
But how realistic is it that a 14 year old girl will not get lured in? Karen says that these conversations need to be a continuous part of school curriculum and parents should also be educated to talk to their kids about these dangers? Florida passed legislation to do human trafficking prevention in elementary through high school. It’s also important to equip a community to be a safety net and educate peers on the signs if they have a friend who might be being trafficked.
Boys are also trafficked and the element of shame is often even higher in boys. It’s important to approach the children very delicately. Also important to connect to the right resources such as a court appointed advocate for foster children and a certified counselor.
The child in Sonya’s home who was trafficked was threatened that money would not be sent to her father. She saw her trafficking to support her impoverished family. In the case of Theresa Flores, the trafficker threatened to harm her younger brothers.
Another sign of trafficking may be dressing in a very sexual way for a young child. Sonya said that her foster child needed intensive in-home therapy to in part help her understand how to adapt to being a teenager.
Karen says that foster care does not have enough services for victims or people who are trained to respond to their trauma. There are physical problems and lots of psychological problems. Appropriate counseling can help them cope with the psychological components.
In one example of sex trafficking that was reported on a previous podcast episode, offering a recovering victim inappropriate resources and counseling for their specific trauma can just lead to more trauma.
Also, Dr. Heather Pane-Seifert (on a previous episode) gives some insight into why trafficked children behave the way they do—their behaviors may help them survive. Treatment that reduces these survival behaviors if the child is still being trafficked may put them in danger.
Sonya says that she was not equipped to handle a trafficked child when she became a foster parent. Karen says that anyone who is working with children, especially foster parents, needs to be educated on the signs of, response to trafficking.
Where can people learn more about supporting foster care? If you don’t want to be a full time foster family, you can offer respite care to existing families. If you have organizations within your community that collect items that these children might need, this helps foster families who often have to spend their own money for the children’s’ needs.
Shield North Carolina has a Service Groups and Faith Alliance—we’re hoping that a network like this can help provide support to foster families’ needs.
Traffickers, buyers, and victims often all have childhood trauma in their past. In preventing trafficking, it is essential to address this trauma. Wings of Shelter offers training.
I want to tell you a little bit about Shield North Carolina. I started Shield North Carolina two years ago as a mom that was disgusted at the reality of people trafficking children for sex. We believe in a world where kids can live free of fear of exploitation. We are primarily focused on prevention efforts at the community level and are currently developing a prototype for responding to trafficking and supporting restoration at the municipal level for other grassroots movements to replicate. We’ve been a part of passing legislation at the municipal and state level and are currently working on federal legislation to create greater restitution for child pornography victims. Our approach is to be relentless, collaborative and bring together best practices from across the country. Please consider making a donation to Shield North Carolina so we can continue this important work. Go to www.shieldnc.org to make a donation. We are careful stewards to make your dollars count in turning the tides in the anti-trafficking movement so that next generations can live in a world where kids fulfill their purposes and never have to worry about being sold. www.shieldnc.org Can follow us on facebook. Can you become a monthly donor?