We once heard it said that “trafficking is the exploitation of vulnerability”. A trafficker is someone who identifies an area of vulnerability in an individual - be it financial, psychological, some form of physical dependence, etc. - and exploits that vulnerability, using it for personal gain.
This raises the question, “who, then, is vulnerable?” That question is the subject of our new blog series, Exploiting the Vulnerable: Key Triggers for Sex Trafficking.
What experts have found and what we have learned to be true in our experiences is that there are key triggers that set a young person in the U.S. at risk for sexual exploitation. We have identified four common elements that are present in the backgrounds of the young ladies we have worked with - some of them having one element, some having all four.
We will unpack these triggers over the next four weeks. Here’s the first one…
This element alone sets the stage for the other three. The fact of the matter is that this population is one of the most at-risk groups of people in our country. Each year approximately 450,000 young people come into contact with child welfare systems in the U.S. Nearly one-fourth of those children are awaiting adoption.
Young people who have a history of involvement in the foster care system are often targeted by traffickers because of their need for love, affirmation, and protection. 70% of domestic minor sex trafficking victims were in foster care at some point. Around 80% of the young women we've worked with at Eye Heart World have indicated involvement in child welfare systems at some point in their lives.
While there are many reasons that traffickers target young people with a history of foster care, we want to discuss three:
1. THEY COME FROM BACKGROUNDS OF INSTABILITY.
Traffickers prey on young people who lack familial, financial, and relational stability, offering them protection, acceptance, and a sense of “family” as a way to coerce them into the life of prostitution and exploitation. These young people come from situations that are riddled with instability. Many come from highly abusive family situations, being removed from their families in moments of extreme trauma, thus leaving them feeling abandoned without the stability of a family that a child so desperately needs. Many in such circumstances come from economically unstable situations where they live wondering what they will eat, how they will afford basic essentials, or even where they will live. Traffickers capitalize on these and other factors of instability. They are pros at identifying these areas of vulnerability and offering exactly what the young person is looking for as a way to entice them into their control.
2. THEY CARRY A DISTRUST OF ADULTS WHO SEEK TO HELP THEM.
Foster children are most often in their situations because of the irresponsibility and abuse of adults. It is adult police officers who are typically the first responders in abusive situations. And although adults are the ones trying to help them, it is adults who are removing them from their families and placing them in unfamiliar situations. Over and over again adults are often present in the child's moment of pain, so it goes without saying that they don’t trust adults. Traffickers know this area of vulnerability and capitalize on it, reinforcing their distrust for adults (especially law enforcement), making the trafficker the only person that they trust. So the person she should not trust ends up being the one she does, and the people she should trust are the ones she does not.
3. THEY ARE SEARCHING FOR BELONGING.
It goes without saying that the two reasons above lead to these young people searching for what they have been missing their whole lives - family, a place to belong. So, traffickers find ways to fill that void. Victims are often trained to call their traffickers “daddies” and themselves “wifies”, a perverted reflection of the family unit they are desperately seeking and longing to find. One survivor we know told us that her favorite times while in the life were the “family dinners” that her trafficker would have with his girls before dropping them off at the street track to work for the night. The traffickers provide these young ladies with just enough of what they need in order to maintain the upper hand and stay in control. As a result of their situations, foster children often suffer from low self-worth, which is exactly why The Heart Tour exists - to empower kids like these and make them less vulnerable to exploitation.
If trafficking is "the exploitation of vulnerability”, then there are few groups of people in our society more vulnerable than the young people in our child welfare system. They have been thrust into a system that at its core is designed to help them, yet in many cases sets them up to be at risk in many ways.
These young people deserve to be protected, guided, and advocated for, not exploited. The more we understand their struggles, the more we are able develop services and programs to help them.