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Much Anticipated Child Welfare Guidance on Human Trafficking Released

Rev. Brook Bello of More Too Life, Inc.; Acting Assistant Sec. George Sheldon; and Minh Dang, Human Trafficking scholar.

On Sept. 16, the White House hosted an event to combat human trafficking: "Taking Action to Eradicate Modern-Day Slavery — Convening for Civil Society Leaders." Invited guests included (pictured left to right) Rev. Brook Bello, founder and CEO of More Too Life, Inc.; Administration for Children and Familes Acting Assistant Secretary George Sheldon; and Minh Dang, a human trafficking scholar and survivor. Photo by ACF/Mark Riordan.

A year ago this month when President Obama committed our nation to the fight against human trafficking, this country had no government-wide, coordinated strategic action plan for victims services or substantive guidance for child welfare systems. Now we have both.

On Monday the Administration on Children, Youth and Families released Guidance to States and Services on Addressing Human Trafficking of Children and Youth in the United States. Called for in the Federal Strategic Action plan, this guidance is a road map for how to identify, engage, serve and ultimately restore victims.

It lays out what we know and don’t know about trafficking and the services we do and should be providing. And this much is clear: Trafficking in children is a child welfare issue. If it isn’t I don’t know what is.

As we rethink the paradigm of how our child welfare systems approach the issue of human trafficking, we will certainly need more data and research, however, the data we do have seem to paint a clear and intuitive picture.

In one study, the Los Angeles County Probation Department found that 59 percent of the 174 juveniles arrested for prostitution-related charges had been in the foster care system. Many of these victims had been recruited while living in group home settings.

A study from the California Child Welfare Council essentially confirms the LA County study. It found that from 50 percent to 80 percent of commercial sexual exploitation victims had been involved with child welfare at some point.

Some studies are even more dramatic. The Connecticut Department of Children and Families found in one study that 86 out of 88 children identified as child sex-trafficking victims had been involved with child welfare services in some manner.

Some evidence suggests that LGBTQ youth can be up to five times more likely than heterosexual youth to be victims of trafficking. This increased susceptibility comes with the feelings of rejection and alienation that they often experience. 

Additionally, recent exploratory studies indicate that traffickers are targeting Native American children and youth who have trauma-related risk factors.   

The nexus is too strong, the correlation too clear, to ignore or deny that the human trafficking and child welfare are inextricably linked.

Yet, we don’t know enough. This guidance calls for increased data collection and analysis, and as we begin to get better data, we’ll continuously improve our response. And most importantly we must never lose sight of the victims and survivors themselves. In their stories there is great suffering and heartache, but in their recovery you see resilience and hope.

Last year, I visited a center in Chicago where previously trafficked women were given a home and support. I listened as eight of them recounted their experiences. These women—some of them girls, really—had been lured into horrible situations with promises of a better life for them and their families. They had lost so much, their dignity, their lives. 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.

These examples reinforce how vulnerable abused, neglected and maltreated youth are to the recruitment and control tactics of human traffickers. 

The examples also indicate the critical role child protection professionals have in preventing, identifying and protecting youth who are targeted by human traffickers. 

With victims having so many “touch points” with the system, the guidance makes it clear that collaboration is more important now than ever before.  Private providers, faith-based organizations, other government agencies, we must all work together.

Though there are no specific best practices for providing services to human trafficking victims, we can apply much of what we’ve learned from the advances in trauma informed care.

The good news is there are already emerging practices across the United States that demonstrate simple and low or no cost solutions.

With all the federal attention, community and faith-based activity and personal commitments to bring human trafficking to an end, some have said we are at a tipping point. I agree.

We indeed now have many promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep. But together, in partnership, we will all make a difference.

George Sheldon is the Acting Assistant Secretary for the Administration for Children and Families under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  Prior to joining ACF, Sheldon served as the secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF).

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