All the Little Things: Unique Vulnerability of Kids in Foster Care

Jana Goyenechea
Photo courtesy: Jana Goyenechea

Exploiters, traffickers, groomers and abusers make their way into unguarded entry points of our communities.

By Dionne Joseph

Ever heard of impetigo? As a foster mom with children in daycare, impetigo is a common nuisance. It’s caused by bacteria, usually staphylococci organisms, and lingers on chew toys and sticky fingers, looking to exploit weaknesses in the skin. Once the bacteria discover a way into the body, perhaps through a bug bite or minor abrasion, it wreaks havoc, exploding into angry, contagious blisters.

As ugly as impetigo is, it’s a gentle metaphor for a societal bacterium that grows prolifically both in dark corners and broad daylight. Exploiters, traffickers, groomers and abusers make their way into unguarded entry points of our communities. Children and youth in out-of-home care are especially vulnerable.

Lisa Gilbert is a retired social worker, formerly with San Diego County in California. In her 25-year career, she spent 15 years working primarily with female youth, aged 12-18, who had been victimized, exploited or trafficked for sex.

Gilbert said many of the children she served were in foster and group homes, although some were victimized by their biological families. This early abuse sets the stage for future victimization. “If you come from a home of sexual abuse, sex with strange men isn’t far off,” she explained. “Kids in group homes get recruited by other kids.”

Recruitment refers to actively seeking new victims, and current victims often do the legwork. Kids may invite peers to a “party” where traffickers are prepared to use drugs, alcohol, intimidation and even the promise of love and attention to lure and capture potential victims.

An abused youth may be photographed or recorded, leading to sextortion and sexploitation under the threat of shame or fear.

“There are so many ways for girls to get mixed up,” Gilbert said.

The World Health Organization defines sexual exploitation as the actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, power or trust for sexual purposes. Closely related, human trafficking is the sale of an individual for sex.

As of 2016, the Human Trafficking Institute estimates that 4.8 million people are victims of commercial sex trafficking. Adults make up 3.8 million, and 1 million are children. Globally, 99% are women and girls. Those numbers have only increased in the past seven years.

In a video from Safe House Project, CEO Kristi Wells says sex trafficking is a $99 billion industry and the second-largest criminal enterprise in the United States. In fact, as of 2018, the land of the free could be more accurately described as the land of the enslaved, as the United States is among the top three nations worldwide for sex trafficking in a study published by the U.S. State Department. It is followed by Mexico and the Philippines.

“Parenting is awesome and hard. Our radar needs to be up all the time,” said Jana Goyenechea, co-founder and director of Aftercare for Scarlet Road, a nonprofit in Bremerton, Washington, that cares for survivors of sexual exploitation. According to Goyenechea, parents unprepared or unwilling to parent, combined with a culture that normalizes sexuality and open access to pornography, creates opportunities for predators.

And some of those predators are already in the home. Safe House Project reveals 40% of trafficked children are sold for sex by a family member. Exploitation crosses the boundaries of ethnicity and economics, but children in out-of-home care are especially vulnerable.

Humans are born seeking to connect with those who can meet our need for love, nourishment and safety. When that vulnerability is disregarded or violated, it creates a wound.

Children experiencing foster care have endured greater mental, emotional and physical wounding than many of their peers and that’s sufficient material for an exploiter. Other statistics are gloomier.

Children in foster care are more likely to run away and experience homelessness. Once on the streets, they can be swept up by the threats and promises of a pimp.

Even more disturbing, in January 2022, Gen Justice published a study concluding that 20,000 kids disappear from the child welfare system each year. Over the past two decades, the cases of more than 100,000 missing foster children were closed before the children were located. Some cases were closed in as little as six months and for children as young as 9.

The OLP Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based social services organization, found 98% of children who are sex trafficking survivors had previous involvement with child welfare services.

Ninety-eight percent.

If getting trafficked was a job, the foster system would be onboarding. This should cause all of us who interact with child welfare to pause and acknowledge the lives of children are on the line. It’s as if we’re surgeons standing over the open chest of heart patients.

Their hearts are in our hands. We may not be decisive in all outcomes, and as foster parents, our resources and authority are limited, but nevertheless, the children deserve the best we can offer.

As we temporarily stand in the gap, it’s our responsibility to the children in our care and our community to pick up where someone healthy left off or begin what no caregiver has started. Our need for love, nourishment, safety and connection doesn’t diminish as we age — it just looks different.

Lisa Gilbert says prevention begins with dialogue.

“More people need to talk about it,” she said. “People don’t really understand that it’s happening at our malls, schools, and on social media.” Indeed, one study concluded that during the COVID-19 lockdown, recruitment to sex work from foster homes decreased since fewer kids came into foster care, but online recruitment increased by 22%.

“We need to let kids know what it looks like and what the warning signs are,” she said. Gilbert recalled a youth who was exploited by a boyfriend. When asked what would have prevented the abuse, the girl said, “If someone would have told me, I could have said ‘no.’”

You can say no.

In addition to dialogue, we need to empower our kids, particularly the ones from whom power was stolen. As healthy caregivers, we model what real power is when we share it.

Gilbert said, kids coming out of this life needing therapy with “very well-trained staff” who’ll build rapport so they know they’re welcome back even if they leave treatment early. “They need deprogramming. They don’t have ID, haven’t managed money, or had a say in anything.”

This is a big part of Goyenechea’s job at Aftercare for Scarlet Road. “We figure out what clients want and need. We work towards whatever goals people have, and as they work toward their goals, they make discoveries about their future.”

Working in aftercare, Goyenechea empowers clients by helping them discover who they are and who they want to be. Client goals may include finding an apartment, getting a job, or returning to school. It probably involves therapy for themselves and their children. It may also include filing a restraining order against a pimp, locating good daycare, or getting a vehicle repaired.

Regarding prevention, she says we need to maintain connections and prioritize our children. “We need real, authentic conversations with our kids. We need to teach them consent, safe and unsafe boundaries. Our families must model health.”

It didn’t take long for impetigo to spread over my little one’s face — temporarily marring his pudgy cheeks and baby-soft skin. But since I was equipped, educated and empowered by our pediatrician, recovery came quickly. We know better now, how to prevent impetigo, how to diagnose the beginning of the rash, and how to beat it back with a prescription salve.

As parents, caregivers and community members, we get to make choices about the environment we expose our children to. We can weigh in on what they watch, who they follow on social media (or if they’re even allowed access), and who they spend time with. We can initiate conversations and talk through different scenarios. We can empower them with our unconditional love and commitment to them. We can create safe places for them to try new things and soft places to land when they fall. We can also learn the signs of exploitation. The Safe House Project offers free training:

Here’s a list to aid in victim identification from their free ONWatch training:

  • Disassociation and disconnection from the world around them
  • Mental health disorders like PTSD
  • Drugs or alcohol dependence
  • Hypersexualized behavior or inappropriate clothing for the time of year
  • Overly protective of their phone or has two phones
  • Extreme reaction to certain people or situations
  • Tattoo or branding
  • Evidence of physical abuse
  • Unhealthy relationships with apparent abuse
  • Shift in behavior or self-isolation

An abused child or youth may not be able to seek help independently, so it’s up to watchful and caring community members to intervene. If you even think someone is being exploited, call Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888 or text “help” to BEFREE. If you witness active exploitation, call 911.

Given the name, “Auntie Mom” by her first foster daughter, Dionne Joseph has been fostering since 2016. She is an adult transracial adoptee who has also had the privilege of adopting. Joseph serves on Washington’s Parent Advisory Group and is an advocate for children and families. A writer and runner from the Pacific Northwest, Joseph and her husband have five children, Goldendoodles and cats.

Jana Goyenechea is the co-founder and director of Aftercare for Scarlet Road, a nonprofit in Bremerton, Washington, that cares for survivors of sexual exploitation.