Amid growing concerns over sex trafficking, a federal audit reveals critical shortcomings in screening protocols for foster children, leaving many vulnerable to exploitation. Michigan Advance shares the story of former foster child and sex trafficking survivor T Ortiz and delves into states failing their duty to protect vulnerable children.
Underserved communities at highest risk, foster children particularly vulnerable
According to recent statistics, up to 60% of child sex trafficking victims have been or are in foster care, and a third of vulnerable youth report running away or being kicked out before falling prey to trafficking. Foster children of color are disproportionately at risk of being trafficked, highlighting intersectional systemic vulnerabilities.
Survivor T Ortiz’s story illustrates the exploitation of trust. Trafficked since age five, Ortiz recounts how a barber subjected her to trafficking. Despite being in state custody, Ortiz faced abuse and exploitation through age 17, underscoring the need for protective measures in foster care.
“You have a young person who already now doesn’t trust adults, and is not getting the connection that they need from their caseworker. They’re not getting what they need. They are leaning more towards traffickers.” – Binley Taylor, director of system change at FosterClub
Legal gaps, and discrepancies between laws and reality
A 2014 federal law mandates screening for sexually exploited missing children, but recent audits in five states reveal that 65% of cases of returned children were never screened. Despite the law, some states documented screenings as low as 15%, raising concerns about effectiveness. Only 11 states and Washington, D.C., require child welfare agencies to screen potential trafficking victims, indicating a significant gap between federal mandates and state actions.
“We have workers who are not well-trained all the time, not well-supported all the time, and may not be aware of what the policy requires.” – Melissa Carter, executive director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University in Atlanta
Advocates, including T Ortiz, stress the need for uniformity in screening models and call on state legislatures to mandate screenings for all system-involved youth, including social workers. The inadequacy of standardized tools, insufficient training for professionals in child welfare, and a lack of data sharing among states further contribute to the challenges in recognizing and combating child sex trafficking.
“If we don’t see this as an overlapping, interconnected issue, then we won’t really get to the root cause of any of it.” – T Ortiz