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The Connection Between Foster Care and Sex Trafficking: Triggers for Runaways

Having worked with girls that have aged out of foster care (and learning first hand how messed up that system is), it is a major concern of ours as an anti-trafficking ministry to do something to make a difference in that community.

We often hear about kids in the foster care system being targeted by traffickers. It's important to understand why that is and also why those kids are more likely to run away. Why? In the first 48 hours on the streets, 1 in 3 children is lured into prostitution. 

From Human Rights for Girls, some devastating facts:

• In 2013, 60 percent of the child sex trafficking victims recovered as part of an FBI nationwide raid from over 70 cities were children from foster care or group homes.

• In 2012, Connecticut reported 88 child victims of sex trafficking; eighty-six were child welfare involved, and most reported abuse while in foster care or residential placement.

• In 2012, Los Angeles County, California reported that of the 72 commercially sexually exploited girls in their Succeed Through Achievement and Resilience (STAR) Court Program, 56 were child-welfare involved.

• In 2007, New York City identified 2,250 child victims of trafficking. Seventy-five percent of those experienced some contact with the child welfare system, mostly in the context of abuse and neglect proceedings.

In 2013, Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, a  survivor of child sex trafficking who was born into the foster care system, testified before the House Ways and Means Committee. She said that traffickers/pimps/exploiters have no fear of punishment because they rely on the lack of attention that occurs when these young people go missing.

According to Yesika, an Advisor in our Youth Program who also grew up in the foster care system, "there are many possible triggers that could cause a child in foster care to decide to run away.

Unlike growing up in a family setting with freedom, friends, and support, foster kids often face troubling stress in a tough environment.  

To make matters worse, it is rare that anyone understands their circumstances.  In some cases, they are not even seen as anything more than an unstable youth, a problem child, or even a case number.

With these factors at play, any number of things could trigger a youth of the foster system to run away."

We asked Yesika to give us more insight into how a child in foster care might feel and why they would want to run away:

For a child in foster care, it often feels as if they have nobody to turn to, as if nobody loves them, or like nobody is listening. Instances such as a painful therapy session, a conflict with a peer, general depression, can act as triggers.  

Additionally, foster children are constantly moving homes, schools, and bouncing from one facility to the next. This instability can feed their stress and make them feel more like an inmate than a normal child. Going from one home to the next or to lock down facilities can be incredibly stressful.

All of these environmental and social factors lead a child in foster care to a point of desperation, which often leads to running away. It is a desperate move and a short-term solution to a long list of problems that the child feels powerless to change. In many ways, he or she may feel like the only power they have is to run away. In some cases, it can be to just get away from a situation that feels hopeless.

For this reason, the list of possible triggers is long.

They include:

  • The feeling that no one cares. 

  • "Paycheck ideology" by foster parents (see testimony).

  • Feeling misunderstood by staff, friends, peers. 

  • Too much security. A prison feels like a prison. And everyone hates prison.

  • Not being allowed to have a social life.

  • Not being able to live like a regular student.

  • Lack of trust from staff, peers.

  • Personal Issues with one's Therapist.

  • Staff being too serious and/or too strict.

  • Staff having “favorites.”

  • Being treated like a criminal.

It is important to understand that to a child in the foster system, the lack of dependable adults and unstable environment contribute to the feeling of desperation.  The key to assisting these youth is patience, understanding, and dependability.  

beLydia works with children in the foster care system by being their friend and gaining their trust. We prevent sex trafficking by speaking the truth about what is really going on. Will you pray for our team to be able to make a big impact in the foster care community and prevent these youth from being tricked into sex trafficking? Thank you!



Hi! My name is Terri

& I'm the founder

of beLydia,

a non-profit that uses hospitality to prevent 

child sex trafficking.

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