By Elizabeth Ashe
After the death of my mother, I and my four siblings were put into foster care for 6 years during the late 50’s – 60’s. My father, an immigrant from Germany was pressured and coerced into giving his children, (who ranged from 6 weeks to 6 years old into care) by the Children’s Aid Society. It was their belief that he could not adequately care for us while he worked a full-time job. We remained separated in 3 foster
homes until he remarried 6 years later.
Looking back on the care we received I can say that we were the lucky ones. The families who took us in were all related to each other and we were raised with basically similar moral values and guidelines. We were loved and cared for as if we were part of the family, so much so that reuniting with our father and his new wife, our stepmother, was a difficult and traumatic transition. I always felt that rather than separate us from our father, a more reasonable and caring solution would have been to hire a housekeeper / nanny while he worked.
The fact that we had such wonderful homes did not lessen the trauma - first of our mother’s death and the secondly being wrenched from our father’s arms. In subtle ways even today and some 50 plus years later, we still bear the scars of the experience. It is one of the reasons why I felt compelled to write this article. Because although my siblings and I were lucky in our foster homes, many children are not.
TRAFFICKING IN FOSTER CARE
Professional traffickers rely on complex forms of psychological manipulation to lure their targets and maintain a hold over them. They are skilled and resourceful, and they know where and how to identify individuals with vulnerabilities. In the US and Canada, that often means preying on children involved in the child welfare system in particular, foster care. While the actual numbers are subject to debate, common estimates place the total number of sex-trafficked individuals (adults and children) in the hundreds of thousands in the U.S. and Canada alone. Globally, those numbers are likely in the millions, fuelling an industry that may generate as much as $32 billion annually.
Risk factors are seemingly endless; according to Dr. Gerald Mallon who has written extensively on the topic of child welfare, foster children are “in need of parenting and care – sometimes easily manipulated, many times in need of love.” This desire and basic need for love is why children who have been through foster care are targeted by traffickers. Traffickers know how to manipulate the minds, emotions, and feelings of a child in care as often these children are in need of any kind of emotional
Another risk factor produced by child welfare involvement is an increased likelihood of homelessness. The unique vulnerability of homeless youth to traffickers is well documented. According to statistics from the OL Pathy Foundation, 75% of all individuals who were trafficked for sex were at one point homeless, and 1 in 3 homeless teens are lured into CSEC by a trafficker within 48 hours of leaving home.
In my personal experience, I have found that caseworkers are often unmotivated to locate youth who leave their foster care placements. There are multiple reasons for this: they are largely unequipped to do so, they commonly assume that youth do not want to be found, and they know that finding a new home for chronic runaways is extremely difficult. Youth who leave their placements, meanwhile, often do not return because they are well aware that their previous placement has likely been filled, meaning they will need to move again. For such children, the streets may hold the allure of greater control over their environment than foster care would provide them.
As well, there is a staggering number of children who “age out” of foster care, leaving them homeless and with nowhere to go. Traffickers manipulate this situation by offering these vulnerable youth food, shelter and money.
And finally, there is the issue of payment a foster home receives to care for a child. Often the foster child knows that their guardians are being paid and how much. This can in some cases cause foster children to feel that the only reason they have someone to care for them is because they are getting paid to do so. As one survivor stated, “Being in foster care was the perfect training for commercial sexual exploitation. I was used to being moved without warning, without any say, not knowing where I was going or whether I was allowed to pack my clothes.” And “when my pimp expected me to make money to support ‘the family,’ it made sense to me.”
There are many who believe that some children are placed in foster care who perhaps should not have been. An example is when a case worker has learned of neglect of a child and decides to err on the side of caution and remove the child. The “neglect” might mean inadequate supervision and personal care to addiction and financial hardships within the home and the inability to provide the necessities of life. There are also cases where a parent feels they cannot control their child and feel like they have no recourse but to let them go in care. They may be forced by the courts, based on caseworker testimony to give them up. The child might experience mental health challenges because of the trauma they experience at separation from their family. Unfortunately, the foster home where they are sent might not be a better situation than the home they left. (And there have been cases that have reported children being trafficked and or abused while in care by foster parents themselves.) Reports have shown too, that some children are never reunited with their family, forgotten by the very agency whose initial response was to protect.
Child advocates realize this leaves the possibility of child trafficking easily available to perpetrators who are on the lookout for situations such as the ones above. Experts believe in many cases that intervention such as family counselling and guidance to repair family breakdowns would be preferred, with the ultimate goal of supporting rather than tearing apart. But with a backlog of cases by overworked caseworkers, plus a lack of funding, placing a child in foster care is often the quickest and easiest solution. But the question begs- is it the best one?
Until we can focus our attention on the families themselves and ways to help a family get through trying and challenging situations, I believe the link between sexual exploitation and the child welfare system will continue to be an issue. Although there are times when foster care can be a good or necessary solution, often support and counselling could be the catalyst to avoid taking such extreme measures of removing a child. The answers must lie with the prevention rather than the rescuing of children from bad situations. Concentrate on this and you can, I believe, reduce the number of incidences, and access a trafficker has to our most vulnerable - the children.