In February 2022, a married couple in New York City was accused of operating an extensive sex trafficking ring that involved over 6 young women and went on for many years. Most appalling is the fact that two of the sex trafficking victims were placed in the wife’s foster care. She was the one who was supposed to provide stability and safety for these children; now she and her husband—a registered sex offender from previous offenses (which the foster agencies failed to notice)—have now been indicted on multiple felony charges including sex trafficking and third-degree promoting of prostitution.
According to Justin Grosz, a Partner with Justice for Kids, a division of Kelley Kronenberg P.A., the link between child welfare services and human trafficking is undeniable. Justice for Kids, the law firm’s national practice dedicated to providing legal services to children who have been physically or sexually abused and catastrophically injured, or killed, by the acts of others, primarily in child welfare systems, including foster care, group homes, day care centers, and shelters, fights for victims of sex trafficking to help them find justice.
It is estimated that roughly 80% of female human trafficking victims have had some form of contact with child welfare systems. While these numbers are staggering and gravely upsetting, they speak to the extreme vulnerabilities of our youth who lack traditional support networks typically enjoyed by other children. Those coming into our child welfare system have often had adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which might include trauma, a history of running away from home, or income insecurity. They are left without security and stability and can fall prey to the most unfortunate circumstances imaginable. Due to their potentially unstable living situations, isolation from friends and family, traumatic experiences, and emotional vulnerability, children involved with child welfare are at risk for being targeted by traffickers who are actively seeking victims to exploit.
Grosz explains that child welfare agencies are not only required to be vigilant in recognizing red flags prior to making placement decisions but have an obligation to stabilize, reassess, and strengthen while children are in care. A child who has a history of trauma and is identified as a trafficking risk cannot, under any circumstance, be sent to a group home where kids are running away at epidemic rates, he says. Grosz warns, “There is no mystery as to where that leads…men are picking girls up outside of the group homes, and the agencies know it.” Agencies must be focused on ensuring therapeutic services and stabilization.
In the case of this New York couple, the husband was a registered sex offender, which should have been identified by the agency and served as a bar to the child’s placement. Grosz advises that agencies can proactively work to increase emotional stability and reduce the insecurities that lead to vulnerability, which is at the root of most commercial sexual exploitation.
The risk here is high and the consequences are potentially catastrophic. We must raise awareness of this issue so that we can do our best to combat it and provide the right tools and resources for children in need.