Changing ‘normal’ for foster care’s used and abused children

They normalize the experience of being used for financial gain? Isn’t that slavery? Who would say such a thing? Is that an actual quote? These are the words of Ms. Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew as she testified before Congress in 2013 on how to prevent sex trafficking of youth in foster care. Now only in college, T spent the first 18 years of her life in the foster care system, and for seven of those years she “was a child being sexually trafficked on the streets, internet, strip clubs, massage parlors and even in the back of express papers.” Words like those above should never have to come out of a child’s mouth. Never.


If you ask T, she would be the first to tell you that sex trafficking is a heinous crime – one committed by heinous people – and that the foster care system in this country does not do enough to care for the youth residing in it.

In 2010, Los Angeles officials reported that 59 percent of juveniles arrested for prostitution were in the foster care system. More recently, in 2013, 60 percent of child sex trafficking victims recovered in an FBI nationwide raid from over 70 cities were children involved with the foster care system or group homes at some point. In 2012, Connecticut reported 88 child victims of sex trafficking. Eighty-six of them were involved with the child welfare system, and most reported abuse while in foster care. With all the various numbers from all the various studies, there is still only one number that we need to worry about: one. One victim of this atrocious crime is too many.

While the connection of foster care to child sex trafficking victims is not definite, the current foster care system does not do enough to protect those living in it or help them prepare for normalcy once they leave it. Some child welfare policies may have unintentional negative effects on the well-being of the children living under them. Rules and policies that inhibit youth from participating in sports, obtaining a driver’s license, or even getting a part-time job may contribute to a young person’s isolation and inability to gain “meaningful relationships or attachments,” no matter how well-intentioned those policies may be.

There is no doubt that the system and its consequences are problems that need fixing.

Over the past year, the U.S. House of Representatives has been working to craft bills that aim to prevent child sex trafficking and improve the lives of foster care youth. On Wednesday, July 23, those bills were passed with sweeping bipartisan support. Each of the eight bills is an important, effective piece of legislation that goes far to change the atmosphere that has been plaguing the foster care system, equip the federal government to combat the horrific crimes of human and sex trafficking, and/or provide for the proper treatment of victims of sex trafficking.

The bottom line is that human trafficking is nothing more than modern-day slavery. That it has come to be associated with foster care youth is deplorable. This practice is the buying and selling of human beings with the average age of entry into servitude between 11 and 14. Through exploitation, it reduces an individual’s value to that of an object. Sickeningly, because of a foster child’s vulnerable nature, they are heavily sought after by the industry and are targeted by criminals who run sex trafficking rings. We must work to help those most at risk of falling victim to this evil crime.

The scourge of human trafficking runs deep and is difficult to root out. By no means does that mean it cannot be addressed or solved. Through legislation passed in Congress and support and outreach from groups like Concerned Women for America, we can bring this heinous crime to light, uproot traffickers, and make sure that children like T find normalcy in loving, caring homes.

Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler, Representative for Missouri’s 4th Congressional District.