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Shocking Numbers of Sex Trafficking Victims Come Out of Foster Care

LA Congresswoman Karen Bass is leading push for supportive services for teen age victims, instead of pushing them into the criminal justice system, where they can be twice victimized.

Photo Credit: Dimitrova


Every year, federal and state governments pour millions of dollars into combatting sex trafficking through local and federal law enforcement agencies. But the emerging link between the child welfare system and child sex trafficking in the United States underscores the need for a new tactic, one that addresses the social origins of child sex trafficking.

At the end of July, the FBI's Innocence Lost initiative, the wing of the agency tasked with addressing domestic child sex trafficking, conducted its annual three-day Operation Cross Country. During these 72 hours, federal agents across the country “recover” juvenile victims from sexual exploitation and arrest their exploiters. This year, the agency boasts that it saved 105 children and arrested 152 pimps. According to U.S. law, anyone under 18 and involved in the sex trade is considered sexually trafficked.

However, what happens to those who are "rescued” is unclear. Whether the children are placed in juvenile justice proceedings or the Department of Social Services, the story of the rescue mission as the FBI tells it ends when the handcuffs go on—often both on the exploited young person as well as his or her exploiter. (A video montage of Operation Cross Country VII accompanies the FBI’s press release.)

Julianne Sohn, spokesperson for the San Francisco division of the FBI, explained to AlterNet that the agency couldn’t account for what happens to the youth after they are “recovered” because local law enforcement agencies have varying policies on how to handle teens.

“If you're 17 years old and sex-trafficked in New York you are literally a victim and a criminal at the same time,” Chrystal DeBoise told AlterNet. DeBoise is the co-director of the New York-based Sex Workers Project, an organization advocates for both sex workers and trafficking victims.

The Sex Workers Project has helped to decriminalize individuals who have been sex trafficked and charged with prostitution by successfully lobbying for the Vacating Convictions Law, passed in 2010 in New York, which allows a trafficked individual to have her record cleared.

But DeBoise notes there is still a long way to go: “Over 50 percent of our clients are trafficked and they tell us that the arrests were some of the most traumatizing parts of their trafficking experience.”

“It's shocking to believe that you could be trafficked and for the rest of your life you have a prostitution record," DeBoise said. "It is shocking.”

These FBI sweeps also result in the netting of adult sex workers. The data for Operation Cross Country in the Bay Area reveals that while its ostensible focus is to rescue child victims, the program results in a markedly higher arrest rate for adult sex workers: for the 12 children rescued, 65 sex workers were arrested in the Bay Area alone. During Operation Cross Country in 2008, the FBI recovered 47 juveniles while arresting 518 prostitutes.

Prioritizing criminal justice proceedings to combat child sex-trafficking has resulted in a paucity of services devoted to helping children most vulnerable to sexual exploitation: those in foster care. Depending on the city, 50 to 80 percent of child victims are or have been involved in this part of the child welfare system. The correlation has led many advocates to argue that funding needs to be redirected away from law enforcement and toward social services that are designed to work with traumatized children.

“People are beginning to realize that juvenile justice is not appropriate to serve sexually exploited children. People are frustrated that those kids are going to the criminal justice system rather than the foster care system, which is designed to help kids,” Kate Walker, from the National Center for Youth Law, told AlterNet. Earlier this year, Walker authored a publication for the California Child Welfare Council examining the needs of victimized children and how the welfare system should address them.