People talk about the sex trade and sex trafficking. The problem is that it’s not sex that’s being sold—it’s people. Poor people. Young people. Poor young people. It should not surprise us that the most vulnerable among us are the most likely to fall prey to sex traffickers. Some of these are people who are so impoverished that they have nothing to sell except their bodies in the hope that they might have a bite of food in exchange for allowing themselves to be used. Others, as Nicolas Kristof describes, are children whose parents’ mental illness makes it impossible for them to protect their offspring. Some go so far as to use their children as a commodity to help support their own addictions.

Unfortunately, the group that makes up the largest percentage of children victimized by the sex trade comes from the foster care system.
These children are supposedly under the care and protection of the very government agencies that determined that they needed to be removed from their parents because of the abuse and/or neglect they suffered while in their custody. It is impossible to know how many children are exploited by sex traffickers, but estimates suggest that as many as 80% of them have been solicited directly from the child welfare system or have spent time in foster care during their childhood or adolescence.

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Image courtesy of Jon Fife.

What makes these children so vulnerable? The odds are stacked against them. Pimps are smart about relationships—their livelihood depends on knowing how to get people to do their bidding. Foster kids are not smart about relationships—staying alive has often depended on learning how to please others. When a pimp offers a young girl or boy the promise of care and affection he has touched on the profound longing that sits deep in the heart and soul of most foster children. And yes, these are children, often barely into their teens.

Like all children, foster children need relationships with adults for care and protection. Unlike many children, they have never had a stable, lasting relationship with an adult who provided unconditional love.
Instead, their misbehavior or complaints to foster parents about food or house rules may have resulted in their being moved to another foster home and then to another and another. It’s not hard to understand how they come to believe that relationships last only if they please the other person, without regard to what is being asked of them.

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Image courtesy of edenpictures.

These are disconnected kids, hungry for connections. Without the emotional intelligence to alert them to potential relational dangers, any show of interest or attention offers the possibility of a new beginning—a relationship that will finally fill the aching void created by too many disappointments and too many people who left them behind. Foster kids expect instability in the child welfare system. They know that caseworkers and foster parents come and go. They don’t look to those in the system for stability; indeed they have learned not to form attachments within the system.

Pimps know this. They know that the mere fact of their being
outside the foster care system gives them an unfair advantage, making their professions of interest and affection seem all the more genuine. Foster kids don’t know that they are being sold a bill of goods and that they are about to be offered for sale.