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From the System to the Street

The factors and figures behind the so-called “foster care to prostitution pipeline”
(Photo: Blake Bolinger/Flickr)

(Photo: Blake Bolinger/Flickr)

Thanks to bipartisan support, Colorado’s House of Representatives easily passed a bill that lawmakers hope will combat a phenomenon they are calling “the foster care to prostitution pipeline,” CBS News reported last week. This horrible term describes children in the foster care system who either run away from, or “age out” of, the system, and then eventually resort to transactional sex as a means of survival. It can also refer to foster care kids or teens being pulled into sex trafficking rings by force.

There are reportedly 57 children missing from Colorado’s child welfare system right now; Colorado police and the FBI say they rescued 100 children from sex trafficking in the state last year. Lawmakers say that one contributing factor is that foster care children tend to run away so often that sometimes caretakers give up looking. But the new Colorado law will mandate the reporting of missing children to police, the FBI, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children—all within 24 hours.

State laws about the missing-child notification process vary. The AP reported last year that lawmakers in Minnesota, Georgia, Florida, and Oregon were all working on ways to tighten rules and keep the welfare system accountable. A recent audit of the Department of Children and Families in Illinois showed that the agency didn’t keep records of the thousands of missing foster kids at all. It’s not necessarily neglect that prevents information from being spread when kids are missing, though; experts say privacy laws originally meant to protect the children can sometimes overly complicate and obstruct the process of finding them when they disappear.

There are about 400,000 children in foster care now, and about 23,000 “age out” of the system each year when they turn 18, according to the most recent statistics by the federal Administration for Children & Families.

The sheer size of the foster care and child welfare system as a whole in the United States warns of the magnitude of the problem if there truly is a “pipeline,” into any type of crime. There are about 400,000 children in foster care now, and about 23,000 “age out” of the system each year when they turn 18, according to the most recent statistics by the federal Administration for Children & Families. The ACF also says about 1,000 run away from their foster parents or group homes each year, but that’s a harder figure to nail down—which is what the advocates of these accountability laws say is the problem.

According to the NCMEC, one in six endangered runaways reported to the organization last year were “likely sex trafficking victims,” and “68 percent of these likely sex trafficking victims were in the care of social services or foster care when they ran.” When the FBI rescued 168 children in a sex trafficking sting last year, it found that two-thirds of the victims had never been reported missing in the first place; the agency has also said that in all of its stings over the past few years, about 60 percent of the children rescued have had some experience in the foster care system or a group home at some point in their lives.

The hard truth is that a lot of the risk factors for becoming victims of sex trafficking, or being recruited to transactional sex, overlap with the realities of life for many kids and teens in the foster care system: having teenage parents or parents struggling with substance abuse or mental illness; a history of sexual or physical abuse as children; and a lack of emotional, psychological, and financial support systems.

Homeless teenage runaways are obviously vulnerable to exploitation, as are “emancipated” former foster care teens who go out on their own, too often lacking resources to support them. Research shows that former foster children have high rates of unemployment and homelessness after leaving the system, and are two to four times as likely to engage in transactional sex, compared to the general population. One 2012 study in the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing estimated that it only takes three days, on average, for a teen entering life on the streets to be approached by a potential trafficker. How long is a homeless kid expected to resist before giving in?

Resisting would be much easier with the help of employable skills and a steady, safe place to live, of course—which is why so many people advocate for increased transitional services, training, and housing for kids aging out of the system. But what if they could age out later, too?

In 2010, Amy Dworsky and Mark Courtney at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall wrote in the Children and Youth Services Review proposing a common sense solution—though it was a solution to a slightly different problem. Dworsky and Courtney looked at the high rates of teenage pregnancy among young women aging out of foster care, high rates which may be attributed to the perception that “having a child is a way to create the family they don’t have or fill an emotional void.”

They did find that teenage pregnancy could be more easily avoided the longer young women stayed under the care and supervision of foster parents or group homes—and the fewer placements they had overall. For preventing early pregnancy, and perhaps preventing risky sexual behavior as well, stability and accountability is and will always be key.

“[S]trong relationships between adolescents and their parents or other caring adults are critical to helping youth avoid teenage pregnancy as well as other risky behaviors,” Dworsky and Courtney wrote. “These are precisely the kinds of relationships that too many foster youth don't have.”

True Crime is Lauren Kirchner's weekly column about crime and criminal justice issues.