This is the reality of human trafficking today: One in four victims around the world are children. And at least 60 percent of child trafficking victims in the U.S. have once been in the foster-care system. As the pandemic continues to create circumstances that exacerbate trafficking, children — especially those in foster care — are increasingly at risk.
Children in the foster-care system are more likely to become victims of trafficking because traffickers prey on vulnerable children. Some children were placed in foster care in the first place because they were victims of sexual abuse. Children with experience in the foster-care system are more likely to be homeless than children who weren’t, making them more susceptible to trafficking in exchange for food or shelter. Of the 23,500 runaway children reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2018, an estimated one in seven were likely victims of child sex trafficking.
Calls to child-abuse hotlines across the country have decreased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, mainly because mandatory reporters, such as teachers, aren’t seeing children in person. However, pediatricians and child-abuse advocates have reported an apparent increase in child hospitalizations due to abuse.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has increased the risk of trafficking among vulnerable children in several ways:
- The economic impacts of COVID-19 have heightened the vulnerability of struggling families, and more children are entering the foster-care system due to poverty or substance abuse, but with fewer foster families willing to take them. The stress on the system puts these children in danger of exploitation.
- Children are spending more time online, where traffickers frequently find new victims. A recent survey of parents showed a 500 percent increase in the number of kids who spend six hours or more per day watching screens.
- Within the child-welfare system, we have found that trafficked children and teens are less likely to go to emergency rooms for illness and injuries, where abuse can be identified.
- Children in foster care are inherently separated from their biological families and often grapple with feelings of loneliness or isolation — making them ideal victims for traffickers. The pandemic has made this isolation even worse, and has made human trafficking more secretive and further underground, making detection harder, according to law enforcement.
It is a myth that most trafficked children are kidnapped, locked in basements, and kept from contact with the outside world. While crimes such as these exist, most trafficked children live in our communities and may appear to be living a normal life but are still being secretly exploited. They fall victim to predators who are skilled in manipulation, coercion, and seduction. Some are recruited online for sexual exploitation.
The movement to end human trafficking has gained momentous traction over the past few years. But recently, dangerous conspiracy theories such as QAnon have successfully spread false information about human trafficking — myths of a global cabal ensnaring children. QAnon’s fixation on the topic has disguised the truth about trafficking — that it is often a more nuanced crime, in which victims often don’t even identify as victims, and that it can take place in any community in America.
So, what can we do about COVID’s dangerous effect on human trafficking?
Although the child-welfare system is far from perfect and needs significant reforms, family stability can change everything for a child. As the pandemic continues to place vulnerable children at higher risk, here are four things we must do in 2021 to better protect our children within the child-welfare system:
- We need more foster parents, especially for teens and sibling groups, to provide safe homes. Fewer people are interested in becoming a foster parent right now due to concerns about the pandemic, safety, and health. But these concerns can be addressed in a number of ways. If you’ve ever thought of fostering children, I invite you to simply attend an information meeting. You can learn about the process without committing to anything. Most of the meetings are now virtual, and strict precautions are kept for in-person appointments.
- We need to double down on our efforts to strengthen and preserve families. Rather than a posture of “rescuing” children from the system by forcibly relocating or adopting them, we must come alongside poor and struggling families and parents who are at risk of having their children removed by the government. Charities, churches, and governments should invest more in family strengthening programs so children don’t have to be placed into the foster-care system.
- We need to be aware of and call out conspiracy theories that steal our focus from the real warning signs in our communities. Conspiracy theories such as QAnon manipulate well-meaning people, distracting them from the real action — steps they can take to make their communities a safer place. Human trafficking is real, and it’s happening in our communities, but conspiracy theories only add more confusion to the very real problem of child exploitation.
- We need to provide community-based support to families who are seeking safety in the U.S., as traffickers disproportionately victimize ethnic minorities and immigrants. Thousands of unaccompanied children and refugees enter our nation without the protection of a parent. Their desire for belonging makes them targets for traffickers.
National Human Trafficking Prevention Month is a time in America where we raise awareness about this horrific crime. This month, and throughout the year, we must remember our most vulnerable children and give them the safe and loving home that they crave, preferably their own whenever it is safe. A safe and loving family and a true spirit of belonging is the best solution to the evils of trafficking and modern slavery.