Contrary to popular belief, child trafficking, defined under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act(TVPA), is not exclusively the problem of poverty-stricken third world countries. Often the most vulnerable and needy, are trafficked right here in the United States. In recent months, the task of stopping the exploitation of children has gained steam with advocates and policymakers opening a serious dialogue on the problem, and searching for collaborative solutions to address the issue.

One group of children that is particularly susceptible to trafficking is foster youth. These children often experience early trauma, may have experienced sexual abuse and often lack social supports. Pimps are aware that foster children are less likely to be accounted for and have gone as far as to recruit children outside of group homes. With a shortage of coordinated training for service providers and law enforcement, many victims in the foster care system go undetected or untreated. More can be done to protect foster children and services should be made easily available to those who are victims of trafficking.

Due to the lack of consistent federal data tracking, the impact of trafficking across the U.S. remains somewhat unclear. However, data at the local and state level point to troubling trends for children. A study by the Department of Children and Families in Connecticut found that out of 88 children identified as sex trafficking victims, 86 had been involved with child welfare services prior to being trafficked. The Los Angeles Probation Department also found that sex trafficking disproportionately affects foster youth, with nearly 60% of children arrested on prostitution-related charges coming from the foster care system. Finally, a New York study showed that up to 85% of trafficking victims had prior child welfare involvement.

Members of Congress have introduced a number of bills to address gaps in data and provide better coordination of services. H.R. 4058: Preventing Sex Trafficking and Improving Opportunities for Youth in Foster Care Act and S. 1878: Protecting Youth At-Risk for Sex Trafficking Act would set federal guidelines that will help to track the incidences of trafficking and provide victims and foster youth at-risk of being trafficked with specialized services. By developing protocols for much needed data tracking, these bills will provide law enforcement and service providers with best practices for identification and screening of victims. The bills will also take steps to ensure that foster youth are provided with the necessary support and empowerment they need in order to avoid sex or labor trafficking.

Following up on these recently introduced pieces of legislation, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing entitled “Innocence for Sale: Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking” last Wednesday. The Honorable Donna Quigley Groman of the Los Angeles County Juvenile Delinquency Court, trafficking survivor Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Petigrew of the Human Rights Project for Girls, Corporal Christopher Heid of the Maryland State Police Child Recovery Unit, and Acting Deputy Assistant Director Michael T. Harpster of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division provided testimony to the members of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations. The witnesses spoke about the need to stop criminalizing trafficking victims and steps being taken to prosecute pimps and johns.

The legislation being worked on at both the federal and state level is a step in the right direction, but is far from comprehensive. More needs to be done in order to stop this terrible crime and provide victims with the support they desperately need. We will continue to track the current legislation on child trafficking and highlight the work of states and service providers in developing best practices and providing technical assistance.