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Shining a Light on the Trafficking of Foster Youth | Commentary

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said it best earlier this month: “The incomprehensible evil of child trafficking has to be brought to a halt … we cannot and must not let these children down.”

The secretary hit the nail right on the head. May is National Foster Care Month, and there’s no better time to address the need to combat this crisis.

Foster youth are particularly vulnerable to child trafficking, and few agencies have incorporated policies, protocols or case management techniques to prevent exploitation and appropriately meet the needs of trafficking victims.

Forced to bounce in and out of homes without basic physical or emotional needs fulfilled, foster youth are often exploited by pimps. Traffickers shower foster youth with attention, luring them into a life of illegal activity — often enlisting older foster youth to recruit their peers into the lifestyle as well.

Foster youth group homes have even been dubbed magnets for pimps. According to the Department of Justice, women and children make up as much as 80 percent of all trafficking victims, and thousands of child-trafficking victims exist in the United States.

States including Connecticut and Florida have shown alarming percentages of child-trafficking victims having been in the child welfare system.

In Connecticut last year, 98 percent of child-trafficking victims were involved in the child welfare system, with most reported abuse occurring while in foster care or group homes.

Similarly, the FBI estimates 70 percent of trafficking victims in Florida had been in the child welfare system.

Despite these alarming statistics, state child welfare agencies are rarely given the resources and education needed to identify and protect trafficking victims.

Further compounding this problem is the fact that those who suffer from exploitation are not likely to identify themselves as victims of child trafficking — and even when they do, many are unaware of what services are available to help them.

Here is where a community approach is needed to help bridge these gaps and prosecute traffickers so these innocent women and children can begin rebuilding their lives.

We all can play a role in building that change. We must ensure child welfare agencies have the tools to understand the unique needs of child-trafficking victims and the resources to appropriately serve them.

Already efforts are under way to continue providing training on child trafficking to non-law enforcement responders such as firefighters and health care professionals, who with proper training are often in the best position to accurately identify trafficking.

The nongovernmental organization Truckers Against Trafficking has developed a website, hotline and mobile application to make it easier for members of the trucking and travel plaza industries to identify and report trafficking when they see it.

In Congress, I’ve introduced the Strengthening the Child Welfare Response to Trafficking Act (HR 1732), a bipartisan piece of legislation to bridge the gaps that prevent survivors from getting the support they deserve as well as help law enforcement to crack down on this growing epidemic.

If passed, the legislation would direct the Department of Health and Human Services to develop and publish guidelines to assist child welfare agencies in serving trafficking victims and at-risk youth. It requires child welfare agencies to report missing, abducted or trafficked youth to law enforcement within 72 hours for entry into the National Crime Information Center database.

The Department of Health and Human Services would also be required to submit a report to Congress outlining the prevalence of trafficking among the foster youth population nationwide and propose an ongoing method of supporting and monitoring efforts of local child welfare agencies.

States would be required to document the prevalence of child trafficking and create plans for both prevention and to better serve victims.

This is a common-sense, no-cost approach to better serve our foster youth and help prevent child trafficking.

Child trafficking isn’t just a cancer plaguing faraway lands. It’s a daily reality for many living within American borders, often in the shadows.

It’s time to bring this problem into the light and get tough on finding solutions because, as Sebelius says, “we cannot and must not let these children down.”

Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., is founder and co-chairwoman of the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth.

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