Prostitution, Human Trafficking: The Foster Care Connection

It is a story that quietly continues to emerge nationwide. And it is not confined to the urban areas of the nation, rather it impacts vulnerable women and children in suburban and rural areas as well.

Patti Jo Peterson, managing editor of The Plattsmouth Journal, recently reported on a comprehensive study concerning prostitution and human trafficking that was released in Nebraska in mid-July of this year, ominously opening her story with the words: “If you think sex trafficking is only a problem in metro communities, you have another think coming.” Peterson explains that according to the study, “sex traffickers target rural communities where people are more trusting and unsuspecting of criminal activity.”1


University of Nebraska study

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Nebraska for The Women’s Fund of Omaha, surveyed a relatively small group of trafficking victims, the majority of whom were in the Omaha-Lincoln area. Many familiar themes emerge in the report, foremost among them being the foster care connection. Of the 22 participants in the survey, 54.6% had time spent in foster care as among their demographics. 4.6% had been in a group home. Only 36.4% had either a high school diploma or a GED. 27.3% of the sample group were unemployed.

Among the familiar themes to emerge was that of being treated as a criminal rather than as a victim by both law enforcement and the judicial system. The study further explains that “the lack of public awareness of both the existence of sex trafficking and the complex and toxic dynamics of coercion, sex, drugs, threats, and psychological manipulation made women and girls feel isolated and marginalized by society, and made reaching out for help very difficult.”

Ultimately, the women felt stigmatized, and compelled to live without knowing who to turn to in their efforts to free themselves. As one woman explained it, “Just like I said, in my eyes, there’s a lawyer out there that’s doing it to kids. There’s a judge out there that’s doing it to kids. There’s an officer, an officer of the law you know that’s probably doing it to the kids.”2

The story emerged earlier this year from a television broadcast in Arkansas, where it was reported that two teens had been rescued from an alleged sex trafficker in Maryland, according to a news report by Little Rock-based KTHV.


Louise Allison speaks of girls that have been moved through the foster care system, getting lost in the count.

Louise Allison runs PATH, an organization dedicated to helping trafficking victims. Allison – herself a victim of human trafficking – explained: “There are hundreds of thousands of girls that are missing, that haven’t been reported missing, they are girls that have been moved through the foster care system, and they just get lost in the count.”

This is no exaggeration. The news report explains that according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 74 percent of likely sex trafficking victims were in the care of social services or foster care when they went missing.3


Among the more concise introductions to the problem is a brief fact sheet produced and distributed by the Human Rights Project For Girls in December 2015. As the Project explains it, “current data suggests that the majority of trafficked youth in the United States have a history of child welfare involvement.”4

The numbers would bear this out:

  • In 2013, 60% of the child sex trafficking victims recovered as a part of an FBI nationwide raid from over 70 cities were children from foster care or group homes.
  • In 2012, Connecticut reported 88 child victims of sex trafficking. Eighty-six were child welfare involved, and most reported abuse while in foster care or residential placement.
  • In 2012, Los Angeles County, California reported that of the 72 commercially sexually exploited girls in their Succeed Through Achievement and Resilience (STAR) Court Program, 56 were child-welfare involved.
  • In 2013, 85% of trafficking victims in New York had prior child welfare involvement.
  • In Alameda County, California, a one-year review of local CSEC victim populations found that 53% had lived in a group home, and 83% had previously run away from home.
  • In Florida, an FBI agent and head of a law enforcement task force to rescue and restore trafficking survivors estimated that 70% of identified victims in Florida were former foster youth.

Additional information regarding the problem – and its inextricable connection to foster care – continues to come to light. A report released this year by researchers with the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University explains: “We found a strong correlation between victimization, homelessness and foster care. Of our sample of sex trafficking victims among those arrested for prostitution, 55% reported that they were or had been homeless and 28% reported they had been in foster care. Those who had gone through foster care were 2.63 times more likely to be homeless than those who had not gone through foster care.”

The researchers continued on to note that: “Our results also raise concern about the coincidence of trafficking and experience in the foster care system. Our data on adult survivors of sex trafficking did not include sufficient detail to determine if the trafficking experiences happened during or after their time in Foster care.”5

Ending the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of ChildrenChild Welfare Council report

A 2013 report issued by the California Child Welfare Council’s Commercially Sexually Exploited Children Work Group – a diverse group composed of public and private agency representatives from social services, mental health, probation, law enforcement, courts and child advocacy groups – explains, in part, that the failings of the child welfare and foster care systems with regard to this particular issue are twofold:

The children who fall prey to exploiters are frequently those with prior involvement with the child welfare system, such as through child abuse report investigations and placement in foster care. Other victims should have received Child Welfare services and protections but never gained access to the system, and are instead treated like criminals and funneled into the juvenile justice system.6


The lack of trust that leaves many women helplessly ensnared in a life not of their own choosing is readily explained, according to Lara Gerassi who notes in The Journal Of Human Behavior In The Social Environment that: “Qualitatively, many sexually exploited women and girls report themes of isolation and lack of connection and resources, often stemming from the child welfare system, foster care placements, and abandonment.” Gerassi amplifies this point, rather succinctly summarizing the problem:

Despite efforts to intervene at a younger age, adults aging out of a foster care that have a history of sexual abuse continue to be more likely to have transactional sex and remain at increased risk for prostitution. A study of prostituted adolescent girls showed that a third of their respective samples had a deceased mother. Another study of 47 women in prostitution showed that 64% had been involved in the child welfare system, and 78% of those had lived in foster care or group homes. The foster care system also serves as a direct consequence for many sexually exploited minors, because child victims often present without parental or legal guardianship and subsequently enter the foster care system.7


It is beyond the need for citation that minority children are disproportionately represented among the foster care system. Nevertheless, to gloss over this issue would be counterproductive to a fuller understanding of these complex issues. As a group of Minnesota-based researchers explain it:

Ethnic and sexual minority groups are disproportionately represented among homeless and street-involved adolescents, and there is evidence they are also more likely to be targeted for sexual exploitation. In Minnesota, for example, the most recent state-wide survey of homeless people found 37% of homeless youth identified African American, while African American adolescents comprise only 6% of the general youth population. Similarly, 11% of homeless adolescents were Latino, and 16% of homeless youth identified as American Indian, while these groups make up only 5% and 1% of the general population, respectively.8

American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls fall as victims to human trafficking at disproportionate rates relative to the general population. A study conducted in Hennepin County, Minnesota, revealed that American Indian and Alaska Native women accounted for 24 percent of prostitution arrests, a figure that represents in excess of twelve times their representation among the general population, according to a study conducted by Alexandra Pierce, PhD.

Similar patterns were evident in Alaska, where “in 2010, investigators from the Anchorage Police Department and the FBI notified Alaska tribes and villages that sex traffickers were targeting AN girls visiting Anchorage to attend Alaska Federation of Natives events and conferences.”

The situation is more dire in Canada, as Pierce explains, “published research with trafficked and prostituted Indigenous women and youth in Canada is somewhat larger but still limited in scope. Small studies in Canadian cities with women and children in street prostitution have found that 14-63% of their samples were Aboriginal (which includes indigenous First Nations, Metís, and Inuit people), though these groups represented only 1-3% of the area population.9

The connection to child welfare intervention is clear and unambiguous, particularly given the lengthy history of forced child removal during the boarding school era, and the subsequent passing of the torch to the child welfare case workers. Writing in the industry journal Child Abuse & Neglect, John D. Fluke and colleagues explain:

The chronic overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in Canadian child welfare care has been well documented. Analysis based on national census data noted that while 5% of children in Canada were Aboriginal in 1998, Aboriginal children made up 17% of children reported to the child welfare, 22% of substantiated reports of child maltreatment, and 25% of children placed in care in Canada.10

More to the point, Fluke and and colleagues explain: “The literature suggests that there is a need for both community-based responses and support at both the provincial and the federal levels in order to address the higher number of social, economic, and cultural risk factors prevalent within Aboriginal communities. Special attention should be given to exploring and addressing the multi-generational impacts of colonialism and discrimination through residential schools and child welfare that Aboriginal communities have endured.”11

The analysis is extensive and thoroughgoing, and it ultimately provides strong evidence for the proposition that “that disparities may be occurring at the agency level.”12


The issue of child welfare involvement was examined at some length in U.S. District Court Judge Janis Graham Jack’s December 17 ruling in Stukenberg v. Abbot. Judge Jack described a system wherein the state violated the Constitution by maintaining about 12,000 youngsters for years at a time in a poorly managed system “where rape, abuse, psychotropic medication and instability are the norm.”

As miserable as life may be inside foster care system, the prospect of eventual “emancipation” from the system hardly promises a glimmer of relief. Citing the work of Dr. Jane Burstain, who had contributed to a report commissioned by the Supreme Court of Texas Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth and Families, Judge Jack explained in her ruling,

This is especially true for children who age out while living far from their home communities and support networks, often lacking the resources or ability to return. As of August 2014, approximately 60% of all foster children were placed outside their home county. Thus, aging out in a foreign community is commonplace. As a result, these children frequently end up homeless, participating in “criminal activities in order to survive, trespassing in vacant homes or stealing or human trafficking, prostitution, those kind of things in order to have a place to stay.”

Judge Jack further cited a 2009 report written by Dr. Burstain that explained in no uncertain terms that youth who have aged out of foster care:

[A]re less likely than their peers in the general population to achieve academic milestones, including high school graduation and postsecondary education, which are the foundations of self-sufficiency. These youth are less likely to be employed and, even when they are employed, are more likely to be in jobs that do not pay a living wage. They are more likely to experience violence, homelessness, mental illness, and other poor health outcomes. They are more likely to be incarcerated, to abuse substances, and to experience early parenthood out-of-wedlock.

Judge Jack also cited Sandra Carpenter, who works with a nonprofit that helps children who age out of foster care. Since 2011, Carpenter had worked with approximately 180 former foster youths, and was herself a foster parent for 65 children over a period of 16 years. Carpenter’s testimony was eye-opening, as Judge Jack explained: “Carpenter testified that 49% of the young women who age out of Texas foster care are pregnant by the time they are 19 years old and 70% of those children end up in foster care.”


These children are frequently referred to by industry insiders as the “intergenerational” wards of the system. Blaming anything but their own shortcomings, the child welfare bureaucrats claim the parents of the children have been so badly damaged by their experiences in foster care that there is no alternative for their children but long-term care. Of course, when confronted by lawsuits raising the very same claims, the agencies will fight tooth and nail – using public money that could presumably be better spent on improving conditions for children in care – to combat their cases. This process invariably takes many years, consumes many millions of dollars, and typically results in the signing of a consent decree that the agency will all-but-ignore.

All the while, considerable lip service is paid to efforts to “break the cycle” that keeps children trapped in the system. As difficult as it may be to fully comprehend, this particular cycle consists of an agency in effect breeding a portion of its future clientele.

If ever there was a cycle that would make for a worthy target of elimination, this would be the one. Yet I saw no mention of it in any of the approximately $3.5 million worth of studies that I’d just completed reviewing. Nor did I see a clear call for a reduction in the foster care caseloads. Perhaps these solution are just too obvious to merit the attention of the academics.

1 Patti Jo Peterson, “Rural Areas Not Immune to Sex Trafficking, Study,” The Plattsmouth Journal, July 27, 2016.

2 Shireen S. Rajaram and Sriyani Tidball, “Nebraska Sex Trafficking Survivors Speak – A Qualitative Research Study” (University of Nebraska for The Women’s Fund of Omaha, April 2016).

3 Winnie Wrigh, “Arkansas Teen Sex-Trafficking Bust Hits Home,” News, KTHV (Little Rock, Arkansas: CBS, April 21, 2016).

4 Human Rights Project For Girls. Child Welfare And Domestic Child Sex Trafficking. (December 2015). See also Human Rights Project for Girls and The Raben Group. The Use of the Phrase ‘Child Prostitute’ in the Media: A critical examination and course for action. (2015) (noting that a series of federal legal reforms construe minors as victims of human trafficking, and that the term “child prostitute” should be replaced in the media by language that clearly represents the factual circumstances of these children); Human Rights Project for Girls, Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, Ms. Foundation for Women. The Sexual Abuse To Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story. (2015) (noting that “in a perverse twist of justice, many girls who experience sexual abuse are routed into the juvenile justice system because of their victimization,” and raising the cogent argument that the juvenile justice system “typically fails to address, and often exacerbates, trauma that caused girls to be there”). A major theme emerging from a close reading of these and other publications by the Project is that the well-documented School-to-Prison Pipeline finds a strong corollary in a foster care-to-prostitution pipeline, which in turn becomes a unique and distinct pathway into the juvenile justice system.

5 Ami Carpenter and Jamie Gates, “The Nature and Extent of Gang Involvement in Sex Trafficking in San Diego County” Final Report. (San Diego, CA: University of San Diego and Pt. Loma Nazarene University, April 2016). I find myself constrained to point out that their data may well have included this essential piece of the puzzle had the questions been phrased somewhat more specifically. This much is certain; while there are precious few funds available to meaningfully impact on homelessness, the sky would appear to be the limit when it comes to grant money to fund additional studies. According to the Compendium of Research on Violence Against Women: 1993-2014, Grant 2012-R2-CX-0028 was originally allocated for a study tentatively entitled “Gangs and Sex Trafficking in the San Diego/Tijuana Border Region.” The initial amount of the grant was for a cool $398,824, with Ami C. Carpenter and John Picarelli listed as being in charge of the project. This is not unusual. Grant 2009-IJ-CX-0011, which produced “Trafficking of Migrant Laborers in San Diego County: Looking for a Hidden Population” cost $521,962 to produce, with Sheldon X. Zhang and John Picarelli among the chief beneficiaries. Grant 2009-IJ-CX-0015, earmarked for “Identifying Challenges to Improve the Investigation and Prosecution of State and Local Human Trafficking Cases” was $501,352, with Jack McDevitt, Amy Farrell, and John Picarelli among the chief beneficiaries. Grant 2009-IJ-CX-0045, for “Identifying Community Indicators of Human Trafficking” allocated $419,643 to researchers Pamela K. Lattimore and Cathy Girouard. Grant 2009-VF-GX-0206 for “Evaluation of OVC Services for Domestic Minor Victims of Human Trafficking” provided an initial amount of $499,992, in addition to which a FY10 supplement of $249,998 was provided to Deborah Gibbs and John Picarelli. It would be far from exaggeration to say that depending on their depth and scope, anywhere from two or three to as many as four or five studies of this variety would easily represent around one million dollars in federally provided research funds. To put this another way, if all of the money that was expended on research into the operations of the child welfare, foster care, juvenile justice systems and their respective outcomes were instead directly expended on those problems that they seek to further clarify, a large number of children and families could be spared the angst of social interventions gone awry. The one conclusion that invariably escapes the notice of these researchers is that less intervention, rather than more, would serve to greatly ameliorate the problems under review. The discovery that foster care frequently leads to homelessness, and that homelessness frequently leads to prostitution as a means of survival is nothing new. What is new is that the current salvo of studies provides us with a greater sense of the absolute enormity of the problem.

6 Kate Walker, “Ending The Commercial Sexual Exploitation Of Children: A Call For Multi-System Collaboration In California.” (California Child Welfare Council, 2013). This is a manifestation of the system’s most obvious of failings; its remarkable inability to discern between those children for whom protection is appropriate, and those for whom it is both unnecessary and inappropriate. This is nothing new. Douglas Besharov, an acknowledged scholar in the field, has described the system’s Janus-faced attributes in terms of its ability to “overintervene” in some cases and “underintervene” in some others. See for example Douglas Besharov, “Doing something” about child abuse: The need to narrow the grounds for state intervention. Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy (1985) 8,3:539–89. For a similar perspective see Jane Waldfogel, Rethinking the Paradigm for Child Protection. The Future of Children. Vol 8, No 1. (Spring 1998). The finger of blame is frequently cast at high turnover in the field, with inexperienced front line child protective services caseworkers consequently suffering from severe decision making deficits, a problem that may be greatly amplified during a foster care panic, when social workers are instructed to “err on the side of safety,” resulting in a greater level of defensive social work driving decision-making in the field. Further complicating matters is that the news media generally pays scarce attention to many hundreds – or even thousands – of children being unnecessarily removed from their homes within the geographic boundaries of the media’s coverage, while the single death of a child said to have been “known to the system” will frequently result in a media frenzy, as reporters and politicians demand to know what “went wrong” in one particular case. Almost invariably, stories about the “shortage of foster homes” quickly follow. Among some of the stories running as of late-July through early August of 2016 are Laurie Watt, “Foster Home Shortage Forces Kids to Leave Friends behind,” Barrie Today, (July 20, 2016); Kate Elizabeth Queram, “Guilford Still in Need of Foster Homes,” Greensboro News & Record, (July 30, 2016); THC Staff, “Texas Needs More Foster Parents Right Now, CPS Says,” Texas Hill Country, (July 15, 2016); Amanda Brandeis, “With Foster Parent Shortage in Texas, Boy Scout Steps in to Help,” KXAN, (August 10, 2016); Kaitlin Washburn, “County Responds to Critical Grand Jury Report on Foster Care System,” Voice of OC, (July 15, 2016). To many advocates, these entirely familiar and predictable events would be laughably ridiculous if the results were not so tragic.

7 Lara Gerassi, “From Exploitation to Industry: Definitions, Risks, and Consequences of Domestic Sexual Exploitation and Sex Work Among Women and Girls,” Journal Of Human Behavior In The Social Environment 25, no. 6 (2015): 591–605, doi:10.1080/10911359.2014.991055.

8 Beth Holger-Ambrose et al., “The Illusions and Juxtapositions of Commercial Sexual Exploitation among Youth: Identifying Effective Street-Outreach Strategies,” Journal of Child Sexual Abuse 22, no. 3 (2013): 326–40, doi:10.1080/10538712.2013.737443.

9 Alexandra Pierce, “American Indian Adolescent Girls: Vulnerability to Sex Trafficking, Intervention Strategies.” (American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research (Online), 2012).

10 Fluke, John D., Martin Chabot, Barbara Fallon, Bruce MacLaurin, and Cindy Blackstock. “Placement decisions and disparities among aboriginal groups: An application of the decision making ecology through multi-level analysis.” Child Abuse & Neglect 34, no. 1 (2010): 57-69. p. 58.

11 Ibid. p. 59. Emphasis added.

12 Ibid. p 67.

13 Hon Janis Graham Jack, Stukenberg v. Abbot, Document 368 (United States District Court Southern District Of Texas Corpus Christi Division 2015).