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Child Welfare System Must Work Better to Help Stop Trafficking of Children | Commentary

It is a sad truth that America’s most deprived children are also among the most vulnerable to human trafficking. But, I speak from experience when I say how important it is to convert sadness into action if these children are to have any chance at a productive life.

Study after study shows that children already in the child welfare system are significantly more likely to be trafficked into domestic labor or sex slavery. The stories are many, diverse and heartbreaking. We also know that child trafficking victims too often do not receive services to address their unique needs once they enter the system.

Keisha’s mother abandoned her as an infant, and she bounced around foster programs throughout her childhood. She suffered sexual abuse at age 7, and, at age 12, was raped and forced into prostitution until age 17, when she was sent to juvenile detention.

Nine-year-old Evelyn left Cameroon on the promise of a better education, but instead was physically and verbally abused, and forced to cook, clean and care for other small children 24 hours a day. She escaped after seven long years with the help from members of her local church. Evelyn bounced around to several foster homes and was told not to tell her foster mother what she had been through, so she received no support to help her recover.

Christina was 12 years old when she first approached a homeless youth drop-in center. She reported that her mentally ill mother’s boyfriend was physically abusive to her entire family. The counseling center contacted child welfare, and Christina and all of her siblings were placed in different homes. Feeling unsafe, Christina eventually returned to her mother, where an adult couple “recruited” the teen into prostitution for two years.

The stories go on and on. Clearly, there is a connection — a dangerous intersection where child welfare and human trafficking meet. It only makes sense to try to address the problem through an existing system that frequently encounters trafficked children or those at high risk.

I know the importance of supporting these children, because I am a trafficking survivor myself. I came to America in 1997 at 17 years old, believing I would work as a nanny in Los Angeles. Instead, my trafficker took my passport, physically and verbally abused me, and forced me to work 18 or more hours every day. I did not speak English, and had no money. I was terrified and without options until a neighbor helped me escape, and the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking provided help and services that allowed me to rebuild my life.

Keisha, Evelyn, Christina and so many others like them deserve the same chance to live well after surviving the trauma of being trafficked. Since the child welfare system is the best channel through which to deliver much-needed services, we must ensure the system is ready to identify and respond to victims, as well as counsel children at risk.

One important step toward doing that is through legislation already being developed.

Last year, the House and Senate introduced identical legislation that aims to strengthen the child welfare response to trafficking. In the House, Reps. Karen Bass, D-Calif., and Tom Marino, R-Pa., introduced HR 1732, which currently has 43 co-sponsors. In the Senate, Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Kay Hagan, D-N.C., introduced a companion bill, S 1823. I would like to thank them for their efforts and ask other legislators to join them.

The legislation directs the secretary of Health and Human Services to develop and publish guidelines that will help child welfare agencies serve the at-risk populations they encounter. It also amends the Social Security Act to require a state plan that ensures welfare agencies make efforts to identify and document the trafficking victims they encounter. That plan would require the agency to report their findings within 72 hours to appropriate law enforcement. Finally, it amends the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act so that states would be required to have in place provisions and procedures to help them assess and identify trafficking victims, and provide comprehensive training and services to serve such victims.

I am very pleased the legislation emphasizes providing for two types of trafficking victims — those forced into sex slavery as well as child labor. Each type of victim requires specialized services, and it’s important that people are trained to recognize the signs of trafficking.

I understand all too well that child trafficking is a difficult issue — to acknowledge as well as to address. But affected children deserve our courage and commitment, and it will take action to end the great injustices as well as help those who experience them. I ask all members of Congress to stand up and support this legislation.

Ima Matul is the survivor coordinator for the Coalition To Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.

A previous version of this guest observer misstated the author’s organization. It is the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.

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