foster care: Discover

by Michael Gerson

[The following is an excerpt from the book.]

Tonight, nearly half a million children will go to sleep in a bed that is not their own. In the morning, they’ll wake up in the same place they found themselves the day before: in foster care. The system has the best of intentions.  But this is an area where good intentions are not enough.  While most foster parents do wonderful, irreplaceable work, in many states the foster care system is badly broken. This is an issue where effective, accountable public institutions are essential – and often lacking. Too many children are allowed to fall through the gaps.  And they fall into some very dark places.

We are accustomed to viewing human trafficking as a problem found in the slums of Southeast Asia.  But the Department of Justice estimates that more than 100,000 children are sexually exploited in America each year. And the foster care system has, in some cases, been distorted and perverted into a source of trafficked children.  

No one looks for us or keeps us on the radar, a child survivor told Congress. There are no Amber Alerts, no posters, when youth from the foster care system go missing.

A 2013 FBI sting operation that disrupted child prostitution rings found that more than half of the minors they rescued had come from the foster care system or group homes. Children in foster care make easy targets for pimps, who recruit at shelters, malls and bus stops.  The average age for the entry of the girls into the sex trade is 12 to 14.  They are often introduced into a cycle of drug abuse and controlled by threats of violence.  

How can this be?

Poverty has a lot to do with it. Poverty affects a family's ability to provide basic necessities for their children - in some of the most extreme cases, things like food, shelter, and health care. One researcher has suggested that poverty is the best indicator of foster care placement. That's important to consider when in 2013, it was reported that three out of five rescued trafficking victims came from foster care homes.

To further understand this social problem (like so many others) it is necessary to listen – carefully and attentively – to those who are entangled in a dysfunctional system.  Children who have emerged from this kind of exploitation report some common experiences.  In foster care, they found themselves at the mercy of unrelated adults, were sometimes abused, and were often regarded and treated merely as sources of income. In the wrong kind of foster care, children come to see themselves as an instrument of gain.  This kind of objectification can make them easier marks for victimization by traffickers. 

Perhaps the saddest element of this tragedy is how children can be drawn to cruel and deceptive adults by the need for affection they don’t find elsewhere. Exploiters are often skilled at creating a false sense of security and belonging.  Children are sometimes told they are loved, even as they are being cruelly abused.  And they have few examples of genuine love to which a destructive version can be compared.  Pimps often refer to themselves as “daddies” and their ring of prostitutes as a “family.” But this version of “family” invariably involves exploitation and the threat (or reality) of violence.    

What should our response be? As in many other cases, the problem is a mix of structural and human needs – matters of law and matters of love.

In many cases, children go through multiple foster home placements under the supervision of multiple social workers.  They feel they might be penalized for reporting abuse and calling attention to themselves.  As a result, some children are simply lost to the system.  When they run away or are kidnapped, they become invisible.  “No one looks for us or keeps us on the radar,” a child survivor told Congress. “There are no Amber Alerts, no posters, when youth from the foster care system go missing.”           

What should our response be?  As in many other cases, the problem is a mix of structural and human needs – matters of law and matters of love.

In some cases, minors arrested for prostitution can be treated as criminals, which can be a further form of victimization.  A criminal record can complicate the rest of their lives.  Under federal law, anyone under 18 caught for commercial sex is considered a victim rather than a criminal.  But state laws vary.  There is a movement in many state legislatures toward “Safe Harbor” laws which not only protect minors from prosecution but provide rehabilitation services.  In the strongest versions of this approach, minors are detained and offered medical treatment, emergency housing, psychological counseling, education assistance and job training.

But public policy only reaches so far.  Children in crisis situations need welcoming foster families. They need organizations and churches committed to their long-term care.  They need a government that supports this work of a diversity of institutions. Sadly, this is not always the case, as in 2011, when federal funding for an ongoing and effective anti-trafficking program at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was stopped, solely because Catholic organizations do not refer clients for abortion and birth control, even though such referrals were not part of the services covered by the grant This bias has the predictable effect of hurting some of the most vulnerable people in our society who are being cared for by faith groups because of the values of their faith.  

For Christians have a biblical commitment to helping widows and orphans. One of the best, most practical ways to fight child abuse and trafficking is to give a child an example of unconditional love. This involves sacrifice and vulnerability on the part of foster parents, volunteers who serve as Court Appointed Special Advocates and the wider Christian community.  But it can dramatically change the trajectory of a vulnerable child’s life. Most people do not have the capacity to transform the world.  But many people have the capacity to transform a child’s entire world.  

The prerequisite for all of this is to put every foster child back on the radar – to honor, in our laws and in our lives, the principle that every life matters and counts because every life is made in the image of God.  It is the precondition for public justice: to make the invisible visible.  

Part Two: See the Big Picture

Part Two: See the Big Picture

Part Three: Engage the Solutions

Part Three: Engage the Solutions