“Aging Out” and Human Trafficking
May is Foster Care Awareness Month!
In the previous blog post acknowledging this month of awareness, the Coalition looked at the available statistics that connect the foster care system to human trafficking. In this post, we will talk about what happens to the 20,000 youth who “age out” of the foster care system each year in the United States.
Before talking about the vulnerabilities when one exits care, the circumstances around the exit need to be addressed: there are many factors for why a child did not get to leave care before turning 18; ultimately, the reason will be an inability on the part of the parent or guardian to regain custody or an inability on the part of the state to provide a suitable caregiver to adopt. At no fault of the child, they’ve reached the age of 18 without being returned to a life outside of foster care. Upon turning 18, the young adult is given the opportunity to fully “emancipate” from care or, sometimes, they have a chance to choose and stay within state care until they turn 21. Many will choose the former, as the trauma involved in the foster care system outweighs the possible stability of the minimal extended support system.
The exit from care has statistically negative outcomes. The US Children’s Bureau annually surveys about 16,000 foster care alumni, following their journeys from ages 17-21. From the surveys of the 21 year old foster care alumni, they found that 42% had experienced homelessness in the past two years (1). At age 17, over one quarter (27%) had, at some point during their lifetimes, been referred for substance abuse assessment or counseling. Fourteen (14%) percent at age 19 and 10% at age 21 reported having had a referral within the past two years. Young women in foster care are almost twice as likely as their peers not in foster care to become pregnant by age 19. Estimates from National Foster Youth Institute believe that only 50% of youth in foster care graduate high school (2). Of 16,480 foster alumni polled by the United States Children’s Bureau compiled in 2019, 33% of 17 yr olds had been incarcerated at some point. By 21, when only 7,799 responded to the survey, 20% had been incarcerated in the past two years.
Lack of stable housing, financial needs, physical, mental, and emotional health all play a role in why a young adult leaving foster care may be targeted by traffickers. But perhaps the largest vulnerability is a lack of community. Youth leaving foster care often express they need people that they can turn to, can introduce a new relationship to, can reach out to when life gets difficult, can find shelter with, or who will follow up when they are silent. The vulnerability of isolation is uniquely challenging to the foster care community and is almost always paired with unresolved trauma from the system.
In North Carolina 400-600 youth “age out” of foster care every year (3). They need their community to step into the gap and combat human trafficking in all the ways this coalition already does. They also need us to be aware of their unique situations and stories, not conflating circumstances or statistics to guaranteed outcomes.
There are people and organizations making great progress to empower these individuals and protect them from exploitation.
SaySo: “Speak out today. Make changes for tomorrow. SaySo, Strong Able Youth Speaking Out, is a statewide association of youth ages 14 – 24 who are, or have been, in the out-of-home care system in North Carolina, including foster care, group homes, and mental health placements. The organization works on two levels:
1. as a platform for youth in foster care to share their experiences with communities, professionals and policy makers to inform and educate them of the challenges.
2. as a support group and educational resource for teens in the system. Through annual events, conferences and programs, SaySo helps these young men and women transition out of foster care by informing them of resources available to them and teaching them essential life skills.”
CASA / GAL: “Court-appointed special advocate (CASA) and guardian ad litem (GAL) volunteers (what they’re called varies by location) make a life-changing difference for children who have experienced abuse or neglect.
Each volunteer is appointed by a judge to advocate for a child’s best interest in court. Our volunteers help judges develop a fuller picture of each child’s life. Their advocacy enables judges to make the most well-informed decision for each child.”
An especially important piece about CASA/GAL volunteers - they serve as a preventative resource, advocating for a child’s best interest and their movement towards “permanency” before aging out of care.
Hope + Vine: “Hope+Vine is a social enterprise preparing young women who have aged out of foster care to successfully transition into a secure and stable future.” They achieve this goal through mentorship, lifeskill classes, and artisan employment.
You can support them this Foster Care Awareness Month and know that your support of these services provides a safety net for youth aging out of foster care in North Carolina. In that small action, acknowledging the need for community to serve as a preventative measure against human trafficking, we can bring awareness to the intersection of systems and advocate for change.
Ideas on how your organization can be a partner in the foster care community:
1. Offer classes to foster parents or social workers with CE Credits on human trafficking
2. Support local organizations that do mentorship/community with youth in care
3. Encourage organizations in the NCCAHT network to talk more about this intersection
4. Sponsor mentoring organizations, like the ones listed in the article, as part of your prevention initiatives