April 17, 2012: Exploitation, Trafficking and Immigration

CAPTA/Children's Justice Act Session on Exploitation, Trafficking and Immigration

"Exploitation, Trafficking and Immigration: Issue for Children, Famliies and Child Welfare"

April 17, 2012

The issues we are exploring today are an important priority for me and have been for a long time, even before I came to Washington.

These are relatively new problems for the federal government—neither trafficking nor the consequences of the enforcement of immigration laws have lit up our radar screen in the past.

But all that has changed.

Now we are actively making our programs more responsive to the needs of the young who are trapped in these terrible situations.

The only way we’ll make a difference is if we work together.  No one-not the federal government, not states, not local organizations-- can combat these problems alone. 

We are eager to hear from you about how trafficking and immigration are affecting children in your states.  This meeting is a great opportunity to find out whether there are aspects of these issues we should be paying more attention to, and how we can be more supportive of your work.

Let me address trafficking first.

Of all the areas of human services I’ve been involved with over the years, few are as troubling as human trafficking.  It’s no overstatement to call it the modern-day equivalent of the slave trade. 

Human trafficking targets vulnerable people of all ages, but its effects on the young are especially heinous.

In Florida, where I was the director of the state Department of Children and Families, I co-chaired the Florida Statewide Task Force on Human Trafficking.

Florida has the dubious distinction of ranking near the top in the nation in human trafficking victims because of its hospitality industry and agriculture.

The cases still haunt me.

In one, a Jacksonville man recruited two minors from Virginia for prostitution by promising them lavish vacations in Florida and elsewhere.

In another case, an Orlando man met a 17-year-old girl on MySpace and promised to make her a "star." Instead, he made her a prostitute in California and Las Vegas, advertising her services on Craigslist. 

Recently, I visited a center in Chicago where previously trafficked women were given a home and support. I listened as eight women told their stories.

These women--some of them girls, really—had been lured into horrible situations with promises of a better life for them and their families.

What struck me most in listening to them is how they had been robbed of their own sense of self worth. They had been treated as commodities and, over time, came to see their value only in terms of their bodies. It broke my heart to consider what was taken from them.

It is evident that it is very difficult for trafficking victims to come forward and identify themselves, especially if they are young.

If they are from another country, they find themselves physically and socially isolated in an unfamiliar culture, unable to speak or understand the language, without valid immigration papers, intimidated by their traffickers.

No matter whether they are foreign or Americans citizens, they are usually afraid to return to the bad situation they came from.

For all of these reasons, they fear reaching out to law enforcement officers, health providers or others who would be in a position to help them.

But, as one ACF staffer said at a recent retreat: “ACF is all about hope – that’s what we do: provide hope.”  And that’s certainly true of our work with human trafficking victims.

ACF’s Office of Refugee Resettlement is the source of relief for foreign children who have been subjected to trafficking.  They get a range of services, including shelter, foster care, and health and mental health care. 

But we must pay as much attention to U.S.  trafficking victims who may well be served by child welfare agencies, though they may never have been identified as victims.

That’s why I’m so glad that I’ve been asked to serve on a new federal human trafficking task force.  It brings together representatives from a variety of federal agencies – Justice, State, Defense, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security –to coordinate our efforts to combat human trafficking.

It’s a sign that we are taking action across departmental boundaries to address this problem.

The effect of immigration enforcement on children is another growing problem.

ICE reports that during the first half of 2011, the agency deported or detained almost 50,000 people who claimed to have at least one child who is a U.S. citizen.  Some also have foreign born children.  So we’re talking about a lot of kids.

I saw what this can mean firsthand not too long ago.

Last January in Miami, I met a mother of a 2 ½ year old boy.  She was undocumented.

The boy needed an urgent medical procedure, but his mother was being detained, so the child could not be treated.

The story has a happy ending—upon review, ICE decided to give the mother a stay of detention so she could return home to her family and see to her child’s health. 

This story highlights the challenges immigrant families face—even if their children are not sick, these children may have experienced the trauma of abrupt separation from a parent, as well as the loss of that parent’s income.  They may also have had to change schools, leave their siblings, or the place they’re used to.

Everything we know about child development tells us these disruptions are harmful to a child.

That’s why it’s so important that we work with ICE to make sure that children’s needs are considered even as immigration laws are enforced.

And that’s why we are so interested in hearing from you about what you have observed in your states.  We’d love to know about best practices that could be used by others. 

But most of all, this is your forum. 

So let’s begin the conversation.