Our Child Welfare Team at Appleseed is beginning to dig deeper into the issue of human trafficking because of its prevalence in Nebraska and the connection to youth in foster care. While limitations on data collection on human trafficking make the estimated number of victims uncertain, there is no doubt of the realities of human trafficking in our local communities.
Human trafficking, one of the world’s fastest growing criminal industries, involves the use of force, fraud and coercion to exploit someone, often a minor, for profit through forced labor or into the commercial sex industry. Sex and labor trafficking deny minors their human rights and rob them of their childhoods. While victims can be of any gender, age, nationality or background, those that are extremely vulnerable are youth in foster care.
The connection between youth in foster care and human trafficking in Nebraska is shown in the harrowing stories of Grace and Leigh, in the recent Omaha World-Herald feature stories examining these issues locally.
- Grace, a runaway at 15, was lured with into sex trafficking by a couple who offered a her a warm meal and a place to stay. After three days of being raped by a number of “johns” she was lucky enough to escape. But not all are so lucky.
- Leigh, a young women who grew up in many foster homes in Omaha, entered prostitution, at age 22 because she was starving. Many human trafficking victims are found in prostitution as they are forced by a pimp to provide commercial sexual services. Just like Grace, Leigh’s trafficker lured her with false promises of what she needed to survive. After 12 years of being bought and sold repeatedly, she was discovered by the Omaha Police Force during an undercover rescue in Nebraska.
Both Grace and Leigh, with the help of police, were able to make it out of the controlling hold of their sex traffickers, who were eventually convicted. But these young women continued to face challenges. Grace ended up in foster care, living in a number of group homes, and Leigh struggled to make ends meet being labeled as “a former prostitute.” With a lack of human trafficking-specific services in Nebraska, both struggled to find the resources to get back on their feet.
The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking indicates that 100,000 U.S. minors are victimized through sex trafficking each year, with thousands more at risk. Of these minors, those in foster care are disproportionately affected. In 2013, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received reports of endangered runaways, of which 1 in 7 were likely victims of sex trafficking. Of these youth, 67 percent were previously in the child welfare system. Prior to recruitment into sex trafficking, many children have experienced sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, are runaways or homeless, identify as LGBTQ, or have mental health issues, unaddressed trauma, and/or developmental and learning disabilities. Traffickers and exploiters prey on the most vulnerable of youth, often recruiting straight from foster care group homes.
Important federal legislation, the Prevent Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act was introduced earlier this summer and has recently passed in the House. Among other things, this legislation would require state child welfare agencies to screen for and assist victims or potential victims of sex and labor trafficking. As this bill makes its way through the Senate, we will continue to monitor its progress and advocate for its quick passage. We will also continue to monitor another issue involving human trafficking with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and the many children fleeing violence at the border. We will share more information on the human trafficking of minors in the coming weeks and months.