Foster Care: A Pipeline for Traffickers

Economics teaches that the principle of supply and demand determines the availability of a particular product. If a supply is readily available, prices drop and demand soars. Human trafficking is no exception. According to the FBI, more than 100,000 minors are sold for sex in the U.S. each year. It’s a staggering statistic that leaves many wondering, “Who are these children and how do traffickers and pimps find them?” Unfortunately, our foster care system has become a training ground for victims and supply chain to traffickers. And with a readily available supply of vulnerable children, who cost traffickers almost nothing to sell, for buyers, the low price of purchasing sex has contributed to fueling demand.

Foster care is temporary living placement for abused, neglected, and dependent children, who need a safe place to live when parents or relatives cannot take care of them, often due to stress factors like poverty, substance abuse, incarceration, mental illness, and homelessness. In Washington State, approximately 65% of all youth enter the foster system because of neglect, while 35% enter because of physical and sexual abuse.

This early childhood trauma and violence is compounded by the lack of advocate support, repeated foster care placements, and recurring physical and sexual abuse and neglect while in foster care; all of this leaves many of these children starved for a sense of belonging and worth beyond the check that accompanies their placement. Many in foster care normalize the experience of being an object of financial gain by people who are supposed to care. This experience becomes the training ground for youth who don’t see much difference between being “nothing more than a paycheck” to their foster home and bringing money to pimps and traffickers.

Walker Pettigrew, a survivor of child sex trafficking who was born into the foster care system explained, “In most of my 14 different placements in foster-care homes, I was raped and attached to a check. I understood very early that I could be raped, cared for and connected to money. It was therefore easy to go from that to a pimp, and at least the pimp told me that he loved me.” Unfortunately, Pettigrew’s foster care experience is echoed by many of the 10,000+ children across Washington State and 400,000+ children nationally. In fact, statistics only confirm these findings. In 2013, 60% of the child sex trafficking victims recovered in a 70-city FBI raid were children from foster care or group homes.

Another chilling parallel between many children in foster care and those who become victims of traffickers is the transient lifestyle. Because many children in the foster care system are placed in multiple homes, they are desensitized to the dangers of pimps or traffickers moving them from house to house, hotel to hotel, or city to city. This transient lifestyle also can produce attachment disorders, making them more susceptible to bonding with their trafficker. In fact, many of our clients say their most consistent relationship has been with their pimp and his “stable.”

There are 400,000+ children in the foster care system on any given day, and another 20,000 “age out” of foster care each year. Nearly one third of these young adults become homeless within eighteen months, making them vulnerable to traffickers for the same reasons.(2) (3)

Currently, not enough is being done by child welfare systems to properly identify children who are being trafficked or have gone missing, making it far too easy for pimps to prey on this population and use the foster care system as a supply pipeline. Thankfully, last month the US Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee Chairman Dave Reichert (R-WA), Subcommittee Ranking Member Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) and a bipartisan group of 15 additional Members of Congress introduced a bill to prevent child sex trafficking and keep youth in foster care from becoming victims of this crime. H.R. 4058, “Preventing Sex Trafficking and Improving Opportunities for Youth in Foster Care Act,“ was introduced by the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Congressional Subcommittee who oversees the nation’s foster care system. The bill represents a strong bipartisan step forward in protecting youth in foster care.

Reichert said, “We owe it to these children to ensure our nation’s foster care system does all it can to protect them so they can live safe, happy and successful lives. For too many kids in foster care, we are not living up to that promise today. This bill will help us identify child victims of sex trafficking and develop a plan for how to help them. It will also help us get to the root of the problem by cutting some of the red tape that makes youth in foster care so vulnerable to traffickers in the first place.”

It’s the least we can do.


  1. AFCARS Report: Preliminary FY 2012 Estimates as of July 2013 (20) (US Department of Health and Human Services [HHS], 2013; see

  2. Cook, R. (1991). A National Evaluation of Title IV-E Foster Care Independent Living Programs for Youth. Rockville, MD: Westat Inc

  3. Reilly, T. (2003). Transitions from Care: Status and Outcomes of Youth Who Age Out of Foster Care. Child Welfare, 82 (6), 727-746.