Preventing Child Sex Trafficking in Foster Care

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More than 50 percent of the children in Los Angeles County who become victims of sex trafficking are in the child welfare system. Although county social workers have been trained to spot the signs that show vulnerable young people are being exploited by pimps and predators, foster families and foster agency officials are not routinely taught important skills: how to prevent a child from being trafficked or recruited, catching the signs if they are trafficked and what do to rescue a child from a life of prostitution.

The Board of Supervisors took a step toward closing that training gap Tuesday, asking the Department of Children and Family Services to draft a proposal to ensure that foster family agencies and group homes who care for DCFS-placed children train their staff and certified foster parents complete annual training to understand telltale signs and halt the cycle of abuse.

“We will continue to advocate and move as far as we can to eradicate this problem,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who co-authored the motion with Chairman Don Knabe. “It is a moral crisis with true consequences in the lives of these children. Enough is enough.”

DCFS Director Philip Browning told the board he supports training and education of foster families and the agencies.

It is estimated that in Los Angeles County, 3,000 children are victims of trafficking. The average age for a person to enter that life is between 12-13 years-old. Increasingly, sex trafficking is a highly lucrative business run by gangs.

But sometimes the signs are hard to notice.

“As a trained clinician, I missed the signs,” said Dr. Barbara Hernandez, vice president of community service at the Crittenton Service for Children and Families. “You think you know what you are looking for, but you do not. Training and education on this issue leads to preventing children from falling through the cracks.”

Troubling signs and signals can include sudden prosperity, with new cell phones, new shoes even lipstick, as well as the use of coded language for life on the streets. Some group homes are recruitment spots for traffickers.

“Any child their age has no income, so if they don’t have the means to buy it, that is always a red flag,” said Rachel Thomas of Sowers Education Group, which works with survivors of sex trafficking. Foster parents and foster agency workers must also be familiar with the mind control techniques that pimps use to entice children into selling their bodies, such as convincing a child that she should be paid to have sex with people and be proud of making $1,000 a night.

“Education is inoculation,” said Thomas. “Children are lured and trapped. Once they are in and are committed to subculture of exploitation, there are deeper levels.”

In addition to pushing for educating foster agencies and foster families on sex trafficking, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas is partnering with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to sponsor a march to increase awareness and to send a message that children are not for sale. The march will be held on April 26 along Western Avenue beginning at 9:30 a.m. To register, please click here.

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