Sex Work and Foster Care: What M.D.’s Story Can Teach Us

By Elizabeth Gretter, Senior Attorney

I will never forget the moment in late 2013 in a courtroom in Corpus Christi, Texas, when we all learned that M.D. was still missing.  

M.D., one of the Named Plaintiffs in our Texas case, had run away from yet another failed foster care placement and upon her return to care, told workers that she had been selling her body to men for money in a local park.  Within days of her return, M.D. ran away again, this time going missing for months.  When she was finally found and returned to child protective custody, the workers on duty at the shelter let her walk right out the front door, where she told them her pimp was waiting for her outside.  A year later, as we all sat in that courtroom, we learned that M.D. was still missing.  Her lawyer’s best guess was that she had been lost into a child sex trafficking ring.

At the time, I remember thinking how scared she must have been and how desperate.  I also remember wondering just how often his horrible storyline played out.  As a lawyer working to reform child welfare systems, I knew that children often run away and sometimes can’t be found.  But what I came to learn was that far too often, these children, alone and vulnerable, fall victim to the same fate as M.D., and are sold for sex.  If I thought M.D.’s story was a unique one, I was wrong.

Children in the child welfare system are vulnerable for a number of reasons.  First is the trauma that every child in foster care has experienced as the victim of abuse or neglect, but also by virtue of being removed from their family home. Traffickers know these are children in search of a family, and they prey on that need for love and someplace to call home.  These risk factors are only exacerbated when child welfare systems don’t do their part to make sure the children in their care receive the supportive, trauma-informed services and placements they need to address that trauma.  Instead, children are labeled as “defiant” or “reactive,” often medicated, and shuttled from placement to placement, becoming further isolated from family and even more vulnerable.

I am so proud to work at Children’s Rights, where every day, we are fighting to make sure that every child in foster care in this country is provided a safe and supportive environment, one that allows them to survive and thrive and just be kids.  No child should have to endure what M.D. experienced and we thank you for joining us in making foster care safer for young people like M.D. and those like her across the country.