U.S. is failing child trafficking victims

By Elisabeth Corey
June 27, 2014 in the Richmond Times Dispatch

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Last week, the U.S. State Department released the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, an annual assessment of how well nations around the world are addressing human trafficking. Because countries are motivated to avoid a low ranking, the report is an important tool in the fight to end a horrific criminal enterprise that creates an estimated $150 million in profits and harms millions of people.

Most of the headlines around this year’s TIP Report are focused on such countries as Thailand and Malaysia that received the report’s lowest rankings. But if you have been paying attention to the media in recent years, you know that human trafficking is a serious problem in the U.S. as well, and right here in Virginia.

In 2013, there were 742 calls from Virginia to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline — the sixth-highest call volume of all 50 states and Washington.

For the fifth year in a row, the State Department gave the U.S. the best possible Tier 1 ranking, which means we must comply with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and demonstrate “appreciable progress in combating trafficking.” While the U.S. is doing some things right on that front, there is at least one important area where the U.S. is failing our most vulnerable trafficking victims: the child welfare system.

It’s hard to imagine a world where human beings are trafficked, much less one where trafficking occurs within the family unit. But it may be happening to children you know. I know this, because it happened to me. And I learned the hard way that our child welfare system is not equipped to help young trafficking victims.

I was raised in a family plagued by generational sex abuse. It was considered normal. It was expected. All family members participated in the brainwashing of the children, and the abuse resulted in severe emotional, physical and psychological damage to everyone.

Unfortunately, the abuse did not stay within the family, and children were also sold to individuals, friends, parties and even pimps as another way to make money. I was not rescued from this horrific environment despite having told several adults outside of my family and despite a brief encounter with child welfare.

My experience with child welfare in Virginia was so dangerous and neglectful that I begged to return home, where at least I knew the evil I was facing. I was not atypical. While many foster parents are not neglectful, the cards can be stacked against them when a child has experienced complex trauma. Many foster children run away permanently or for nights and weekends. They may be acting out their trauma, working for a pimp or experiencing other forms of abuse at the hands of an exploiter. In some cases, they return to their original home because they have a bond with their abuser.

Despite my encounter with the child welfare system, I did not escape until I turned 18 and moved away. Even then, the intense fear of my abusers and my own trauma-induced dissociation kept me entrenched in the family unit for nearly two more decades. It was only after having my own children that I realized I must leave the environment for good.

When children have been raised in an environment of abuse and trafficking, it changes their ability to have normal relationships. They are more vulnerable to exploitation, and expect to be treated poorly. Pimps know this, and seek out children, teenagers and adults with low self-esteem. As a result, some studies estimate that 80 percent of child trafficking victims had previous contact with the child welfare system.

For this reason, it is critical that the child welfare system encourage an understanding of trauma. If my interactions with child welfare had been trauma-informed, my abuse may have ended much sooner.

Currently, Congress is considering several bills that aim to strengthen our child welfare system’s response to human trafficking. Passage of this important legislation would certainly help the U.S. demonstrate “appreciable progress in combating trafficking.”

Please, contact your legislators and encourage them to support a child welfare bill that will ensure state-run child welfare agencies are identifying and supporting sex and labor trafficking victims.

We must dedicate funding and resources to establish systems and train welfare workers and foster care parents in trauma, or we will lose more children to trafficking, domestic violence or other abuse.