Home  |   Subscribe  |   Resources  |   Reprints  |   Writers' Guidelines

E-News Exclusive

Foster Care Youths at Risk for Child Sex Trafficking

By Debra Schilling Wolfe, MEd

Involvement in the child welfare system presumes a history of maltreatment for children and youths. When children can no longer remain safely in their own homes, courts may make the difficult decision to transfer care to the responsible child welfare agency, which then secures an alternative living arrangement. Although an increasing number are placed with kin, many more reside with nonrelative families. Of the 437,465 children in foster care in the United States on September 30, 2016, 45% were placed in nonrelative vs. 32% in relative family foster homes (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2017). When responsibility shifts to a governmental agency, adults who have a contractual relationship to serve in a pseudoparental role provide the day-to-day care for these children. Does out-of-home care support an environment conducive to sex trafficking?

Prevalence of Domestic Sex Trafficking of Minors
Estimates of the rates of sex trafficking vary. Research recently published by the University of Pennsylvania’s Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research examined the prevalence of sex trafficking among homeless youths in three different U.S. cities. Interviews were conducted with 270 youths at community-based agencies that serve homeless youths. All were administered the previously validated Human Trafficking Interview and Assessment Measure. This study was part of a larger research project commissioned by Covenant House International that interviewed close to 1,000 homeless youths across 13 cities.

The Field Center’s findings were consistent with those in the other cities in the larger study: 20% of interviewed youths were victims of human trafficking, with 17% victims of sex trafficking, and 14% having engaged in “survival sex” to meet their basic human needs. In addition, 36% of research participants reported engaging in a commercial sex act at some point in their lives; the author has been published on this subject (Wolfe, Greeson, Wasch, & Treglia, 2018).

Child Welfare and Child Trafficking
A review of the literature points to the need to examine the prevalence of sex trafficking among youths involved in the child welfare system. One study found children may be at increased risk for commercial sexual exploitation as multiple placements and/or group homes may expose minors to further abuse or coercion into trafficking (Choi, 2015). Another suggested that close to two-thirds of those investigated as victims of trafficking had a significant history of child maltreatment and prior child protective services involvement (Havlicek, Huston, Boughton, & Zhang, 2016).

The Field Center was interested in learning more about those who reported that they had been sex-trafficked and/or engaged in commercial sex, as defined by the U.S. Victims of Trafficking & Violence Prevention Act of 2000, and studied the child welfare experiences of those interviewed. Operant definitions include the following:

  • Sex Trafficking: A commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.
  • Commercial Sex: Any sex act in which anything of value is given or received by any person. Commercial sex includes sex trafficking and survival sex as well as commercial sex that does not fall under these categories.

The Field Center developed and administered a secondary tool, the Child Welfare Supplemental Survey, to examine possible child welfare–related risk factors and identify potential resilience factors within this population through quantitative and qualitative analyses. Results supported a correlation between child welfare factors and sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. Research findings indicated that 95% of the sex trafficking victims interviewed reported a history of child maltreatment, with 49% experiencing sexual abuse, the most common form of maltreatment disclosed. Close to two-thirds (63%) of sex trafficking victims reported a history of involvement with the child welfare system (Wolfe et al., 2018).

The finding that almost one-half of sex trafficking victims reported a history of sexual abuse has profound implications. In a 2011 study, a history of sexual molestation was significantly associated with increased odds of having transactional sex among adolescents who have been in foster care (Ahrens, Katon, McCarty, Richardson, & Courtney, 2011).

The Children’s Bureau concurs that youths involved with the child welfare system are at particular risk. Their 2015 “Issue Brief: Child Welfare and Human Trafficking” suggests that children and youths under the care of the child welfare system are particularly susceptible to traffickers. Those who seek to exploit youths target those who are vulnerable. Skilled at “grooming” potential victims, traffickers establish a seemingly loving and caring relationship to gain trust and allegiance. This manipulative relationship ensures the youth will remain loyal to the exploiter, even in the face of profound victimization. Traffickers seek out vulnerable victims; those in state care or children experiencing trouble at home are especially susceptible (Children’s Bureau, 2015).

Vulnerability of Foster Youths
What makes foster youths so vulnerable to victimization? Foster care placement, in and of itself, differentiates the experiences of childhood and adolescence and impacts future options and choices for children in care. Youths interviewed in the Field Center’s study frequently spoke of feeling like they didn’t belong in the foster family and that they were treated differently than the foster family’s biological children. Said one participant, “[My foster mother] treated her other kids like she loved them and treated me like I was nothing” (Wolfe et al., 2018).

Interviews with those who experienced sex trafficking found that 41% described being removed from their parents’ care and placed outside of their homes by the child welfare system at some time during their childhood, with 87% of those placements in foster homes. The number of different foster placements per youth varied, ranging from one to in excess of 10. One respondent, who lived in 10 different homes, discussed her moving from home to home, stating “none of [the placements] really fit me as a person” (Wolfe et al., 2018).

This young person described what many foster youths experience: a lack of belonging and/or connection to their substitute caretakers and new home environment. Many feel isolated and lack the support of caring adults in their lives. They understand that their living situation is only temporary, in contrast to the lifelong permanence of a biological family. Foster youths can be hesitant to trust, as they have experienced adults failing to be there and protect them in the past, and they are all too aware of the short-term nature of their relationship with a family that is contracted to provide for their care. As one young woman who was in out-of-home care from ages 10 to 18 described it, the impermanence in her placement made her feel like nobody cared about her (Wolfe et al., 2018).

Life After Foster Care
Once foster youths reach the age of majority, unless they have achieved permanence or have opted for extended care, they are on their own; they have “aged out” of the foster care system. The foster parent who makes a commitment to a foster child beyond the contracted arrangement is the exception. As a result, most youths are left to survive on their own when they exit the foster care system, and we as a society do a poor job preparing our youth for the transition to young adulthood. Without access to jobs or adequate wages, skills for independence, a place to live, or connection to a caring adult, youths aging out of foster care are particularly vulnerable to traffickers.

Many face homelessness and unemployment. One participant in the Field Center study described being sexually abused for several years while in foster care. She left, only to begin trading sex with those who offered her “love, money, food, and a sense of safety,” stating, “I didn’t know what to do, or where to go, or who to turn to” (Wolfe et al., 2018).

Youths who lack a caring adult in their lives were more likely to be trafficked. When asked what could have helped prevent them from being in their situation, the most frequent response was having supportive parents or family members. Respondents cited learning independent living skills and having a supportive adult or mentor available to teach them skills as the primary assistance or information they wish they received in order to learn to live on their own. Financial literacy and money management skills were frequently named as significant knowledge gaps, and respondents cited setting up bank accounts, budgeting, establishing credit, paying taxes, and how to get and keep an apartment as critical life skills that they lacked. Without these skills and resources, they are susceptible to traffickers.

Biological families often provide children with opportunities to manage money, make developmentally appropriate decisions, and learn to become independent young adults. Foster youths have professionals, whether a caseworker, attorney, or foster parent, manage their lives for them. They lack the life experience and teachable moments that other young people have, forming the basis for becoming successful, independent young adults. When they are finally on their own, unlike their peers with family attachments, the emotional and financial safety nets that families provide young people are absent.

Moving Forward
Numerous factors contribute to increasing the risk of foster youths for trafficking, including the following:

  • higher likelihood of a history of child maltreatment, and sexual abuse in particular;
  • lack of trust stemming from inconsistent caring adults and the temporary nature of out-of-home placement;
  • inadequate transition planning from adolescence to young adulthood;
  • poor skill-building for real-life needs;
  • higher risk of unemployment, financial instability, and housing insecurity;
  • postdischarge isolation; and
  • lack of a physical and emotional safety net.

With increased knowledge, the child welfare system can be better prepared to proactively address risk factors and potentially reduce risk of trafficking for youths in foster care. Child welfare policy and practice must incorporate what we have learned if we are to reduce the risk of trafficking of foster youths.

— Debra Schilling Wolfe, MEd, is the founding executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research where she utilizes an interdisciplinary approach to child welfare systemic reform.


Ahrens, K., Katon, W., McCarty, C., Richardson, L., & Courtney, M. (2011). Association between childhood sexual abuse and transactional sex in youth aging out of foster care. Child Abuse & Neglect, 36(1), 75-80.

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2017). Foster care statistics 2016. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau.

Children’s Bureau. (2015). Issue brief: Child welfare and human trafficking. Child Welfare Information Gateway. Retrieved May 1, 2017, from https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/trafficking.pdf.

Choi, K.R. (2015). Risk factors for domestic minor sex trafficking in the United States: A literature review. Journal of Forensic Nursing, 11(2), 66-76.

Havlicek, J., Huston, S., Boughton, S., & Zhang, S.J. (2016). Human trafficking of children in Illinois: Prevalence and characteristics. Children and Youth Services Review, 69, 127-135.

Wolfe, D. S., Greeson, J. K. P., Wasch, S., & Treglia, D. (2018). Human trafficking prevalence and child welfare risk factors among homeless youth: A multi-city study. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research.