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Foster Care & Human Trafficking

May is Foster Care Awareness Month and we want to take this opportunity to highlight a key intersection of systems: foster care and human trafficking.

Only 6% of all children in the US experience the legal foster care system, but there have been multiple anti-trafficking reports indicating a disproportionate number of children who experience trafficking have also been involved with child welfare - between 50 to more than 90% of those recovered from trafficking.

To fully understand why such a small portion of the United State’s children experience such a high rate of human trafficking, we need to examine the key vulnerabilities experienced by those who are trafficked. In 2020, POLARIS reported the most common vulnerabilities for sex trafficking were substance use, runaway/homeless youth, unstable housing, mental health concerns, and recent migration/relocation. All of those vulnerabilities are experienced throughout the foster care system, at no fault of the child. We see evidence of higher medicating within the system, an estimated third of those in care have been reported as runaways, unstable living situations abound (a rotating door of caretakers is common in foster care), trauma from system involvement, and relocation as the hallmark of their entrance into care. For labor trafficking, the top vulnerabilities also included self-reported economic hardship and a criminal record. These, too, are unfortunately common among foster youth. As youth are dependent on the system to provide for their needs, and there is a known correlation between foster care and incarceration called the “foster care to prison pipeline".

The very things that separate the experience of those in care from their peers are the experiences that statistically lead to higher vulnerability to traffickers: a lack of community, separation from familial supports, inconsistent education due to multiple moves, the inability to identify abuse based on prior traumas, inability to trust “the system” based on prior experience, a desire to belong, the list goes on. Knowing how human trafficking works helps explain the disproportionate rate at which current and former foster youth experience this specific form of exploitation.

Here are three key reports that reflect how the data connecting the foster care system has remained consistent over the last 15 years - though our language and understanding of this crime has evolved:


2. Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2017). Human trafficking and child welfare: A guide for child welfare agencies. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.

3. Overmedicating vulnerable children in the U.S Drake, 2019


In 2007 New York State Office of Children and Family Services conducted a study of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) in their state. This study revealed that “the overwhelming majority of CSEC (at least 85 percent), regardless of geographic area, had prior child welfare involvement.” This study evaluated just over 2,000 cases.6

In 2012, 174 juveniles were arrested on the charge of prostitution in Los Angeles County. 59% came from the foster care system, often recruited directly from their group home.7

In 2021, Project PIVOT from Kentucky evaluated 210 substantiated claims of human trafficking within their Department for Community Based Services. They found that 89% of the victims had prior involvement with DCBS and that 42.9% of the victims were being controlled by a family member.8

The data is available. We know foster youth experience exploitation at a disproportionate rate. Now, we as Community and Faith-Based organizations, Direct Services, Government and Law Enforcement, and Training and Education teams need to collectively address the intersection.

Being mindful of the foster care system is not only a preventative measure, but a restorative one, because individuals with a history in the foster care system often have access to resources beyond those designed solely for human trafficking survivors. You may find that someone in your care qualifies for higher education stipends, housing opportunities, or other supportive services because of their experience in the foster care system. Your anti-trafficking organization will benefit from being connected to the foster care community and the foster care community will benefit from our collective work to fight against human trafficking.

As a coalition fighting together against human trafficking, we can in a unanimous voice educate on the connection of the foster care system and human trafficking. We can advocate for better policies in our foster care system. We can adjust our recovery/restoration efforts to reflect the enormous amount of trauma that has been experienced by those with trafficking and foster care in their background. We can raise awareness in the anti-trafficking movement that this population, and those who serve them, need more attention in our education efforts.

Knowing that human trafficking and foster care are connected is important. Knowing what to do with that information can change lives.



6. New York Prevalence Study of Commercially Sexually Exploited Children, Frances Gragg, Ian Petta, Haidee Bernstein, Karla Eisen, Liz Quinn April 18, 2007

7. Sewell, Abby. (November 27, 2012). Most of L.A. County youths held for prostitution come from foster care. Los Angeles Times. Available at: xpm-2012-nov-27-la-me-1128-sex-trafficking-20121128-story.html

8. Middleton, J., Edwards, E., Cole, J., Ayala, R., & Dobson, V. (2020). Project PIVOT: Prevent and intervention for victims of trafficking: A final report of child trafficking in Kentucky.

Training: Justice U’s Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) Awareness for North Carolina Learners training has a specific track for social workers and foster parents, allowing us to have a shared language and understanding about human trafficking across North Carolina.

NC Foster Care Alumni Resources: Education: Housing:

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