At 18, Crystal had already experienced a lifetime of pain.
She was molested by her mother’s boyfriend and spent the rest of her childhood being moved between foster homes, enduring more sexual abuse, beatings, a failed adoption and a stint in a residential treatment center. She had just escaped a violent boyfriend when someone recommended a woman who would take her in.
That woman, Crystal said, was the first person to sell her for sex. She gave Crystal drugs and used Crystal’s body to pay the rent, she said. “A guy offered her $1,500 and she said, ‘Crystal, we are going to be out on the streets. Can you please do this? Can you please do this?’ And I did it,” Crystal recalled in an interview with Children’s Rights. “After that, she expected it. She told me if I didn’t contribute to her in that way, I was out. I had no place else to live.”
A few months after moving into the house, Crystal said she went to a party with a man who slipped her a pill, then “had sex with me and told me that I was his.” He made her work in a strip club, sold her to other men, and kept the money for himself, she said.
“There were times when I knew if I wasn’t going to do it, I would get beaten, if I wasn’t going to do it, I would go hungry,” she said.
Crystal is one of the countless young people in the United States swept into the foster-care-to-sex-trafficking pipeline every year. “Unlike a drug, which is sold once, a person can be sold for sex thousands of times a year, with little risk since sex traffickers are rarely prosecuted,” said human rights activist Molly Gochman, who received the Children’s Rights Champion Award this year for her work to fight sex trafficking.
In 2012, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 67 percent of young people reported missing and likely trafficked were in the care of social services or foster care at the time. And in 2013, 60 percent of the over 100 child sex trafficking victims recovered in an FBI raid of more than 70 cities had been in foster care or group homes at some point.
Experts point to several reasons young people who spend time in foster care are susceptible to traffickers — such as their histories of abuse, neglect and trauma, and the lack of people to rely on when they age out of care without families.
“Any child may be vulnerable to someone who promises to meet their emotional or physical needs, but children with no permanent home are particularly vulnerable,” John D. Ryan, CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said when he testified before a Congressional committee on the issue last year. “Children in foster care are easy targets for pimps. These children are the most susceptible to the manipulation and false promises that traffickers use to secure their trust and dependency. These children have fractured safety nets and few alternatives.
“Most people don’t realize the strong connection between the deep flaws in the foster care system and human trafficking in the United States,” said Sandy Santana, interim executive director of Children’s Rights. “This epidemic of foster youth being lured into the sex trade is devastating our kids, and reforming child welfare is one of the most effective ways to prevent it.”
Children’s Rights is combating sex trafficking through comprehensive legal campaigns that compel states to vigilantly screen foster homes, reduce caseloads so caseworkers can give children the attention they need, provide kids essential mental health care to heal from trauma and move children between homes less often. The organization is also fighting for youth to be safely reunited with their families or adopted in a timely manner, and if they must age out of care, to have skills to make it on their own and connections they can rely on.
“When children are placed in foster care, at the very least states must ensure they are safe,” Santana said. “If young people can’t be returned home, or linked with permanent, loving families, it is crucial that they leave care with supportive networks of people they can turn to, and the skills to survive so they won’t be lured into dangerous situations.”
Lawmakers are also recognizing the need to stem the flow of foster youth into sex trafficking. In September, President Obama signed the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act. Among other provisions, the law requires states to develop policies to identify foster youth who are at risk of or already have been trafficked and provide them appropriate services. It also calls for states to quickly locate and assess kids who run from care, and report to the federal government statistics on the number of youth trafficked each year.
Crystal, now 23, said she managed to escape the sex trade after a man who already paid for time with her couldn’t follow through with it, and gave her extra money to get out. “He kept saying, ‘You’re too beautiful, you’re too smart, you need to make something of yourself.’ It made me cry,” Crystal said. “I had already given up on myself. I didn’t think anybody would care about me.”
Crystal is now working to raise awareness about trafficking and wants to help other victims. She shared some of her story at Children’s Rights’ Ninth Annual Benefit in October. “This happens to so many young women right under our noses,” she told the crowd. “No young lady plans to be a sex slave.”
Read additional articles in Notes from the Field, the Children’s Rights Newsletter: