Foster care youth vulnerable to human trafficking


Operation Cross Country VII, the FBI-led minor sex trafficking sting late last month, shocked Americans as it exposed the reality of human trafficking in the United States. Even more frightening has been the realization that many of the exploited youth identified in the sting were recruited directly out of the foster care system. [1]

What about the situation of youth “in the system” creates such vulnerability?


There are numerous factors.

Each year, more than 26,000 American youth age out of care. [2] Understandably, many identify their main challenge as not having a familial support system to back them when they have a need. Whereas youth growing up in consistent family settings have adults present to provide advice, support, and resources, youth in foster care are often accustomed to changing living situations and will likely not maintain a lifelong connection with any of their temporary guardians.

Foster care youth also may not have been given consistent, unconditional acceptance and support. They are given new rules and expectations in each household they enter and in each agency from which they receive support. Accustomed to a checklist mentality of “performance”, one youth puts it, “you grow up sort of having to audition – for everything.” [3]

“You grow up sort of having to audition – for everything.”

Traffickers recognize that youth with this background are accustomed to their needs being met on a conditional basis, and that they have a hunger for unconditional acceptance. Traffickers promise a bed to sleep in each night, all physical needs to be met, and intense emotional connection. Their promises of love coupled with demands for trafficked youth to perform sex acts or provide free labor create an intricate web of emotional manipulation while meeting the need for love and support.

Traffickers also exploit the often-rocky backgrounds of foster care youth. Most of the youth who enter the foster care system have put in the State’s care because of a situation of abuse or neglect at home. The psychological and emotional effects of these experiences make these youth particularly susceptible to the abuses of traffickers. The normalization of sexual violence and the unmet need for nurturance and support increase the chances that a potential trafficking victim can be psychologically coerced into compliance with a trafficker.

Youth who are aging out of foster care also may be more vulnerable to traffickers because of financial need. They must find a way to support themselves building from the ground up. Nearly half do not finish high school, and homelessness is often a problem upon aging out. [3] Without a financial or housing safety net in place, they often operate in short-term mode, making ends meet day to day with little flexibility to invest in the future. As one youth who ended up homeless put it, “Life hits you hard after you get out. You feel like the whole world is against you.” [4] Promises of love, emotional support, financial support, and housing are hard to pass up for youth who may not be offered these basic needs elsewhere.

“Life hits you hard after you get out. You feel like the whole world is against you.”

Moreover, when youth age out of State care, they often drop off the radar completely. The State is no longer responsible for them and there may not be the long-term support of family or friends looking out for them. Given how often youth in foster care are moved around, no one may show alarm the moment an aged-out youth goes missing. No one is held accountable for them and traffickers take advantage of this vulnerability.

These issues are complex and are just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, it is not only in the United States that youth in alternative care face extreme vulnerability to human trafficking and other dangerous situations and exploitation.

The Transitions Initiative in Ethiopia marks IOFA’s commitment to supporting youth aging out of alternative care and building awareness of their situations upon leaving care. Keep an eye out for IOFA intern Sarah’s reports on her research this summer with these youth, learning what they have to say about their experiences aging out of care.

Alexa Schnieders
Program Development Intern



Recommendations: Cook County DCFS youth recount their experiences with a job training program

Last week’s blog post reported the reflections of DCFS foster youth participants in a job training program, as noted through Chapin Hall focus groups. The Cook County-based program seeks to provide four weeks of training before two months of subsidized work placements, yet the participants’ feedback has been disappointing. How can programs like the Cook County one be improved?


Increased organization and individualized care

One of the most widespread complaints among the DCFS ward participants was the perceived disorganization of the program. One suggestion that Chapin Hall makes is to train DCFS wards separately from other populations for more specialized and individualized attention and training.

The needs of the DCFS ward participants are often starkly different from some of the populations with whom they have been trained (ex-convict adults, for example). The training program is often the first preparation for professionalism that the young participants have ever received. Using age-specific material and encouraging an environment of equality of status and priority could improve the effectiveness of the program for DCFS ward participants.

The smaller training class size would also encourage engagement in the program and give participants the opportunity to ask their questions and receive more individualized support.

Interactive Skill-building activities

Another complaint of the program participants was the worksheet-style training. The DCFS youth preferred a more hands-on approach, citing an interactive “Pretend Town” activity as the most useful part of the training as a whole. Other concrete examples that the participants mentioned included mock interviews, CPR training, and opportunities “where you practice”. Hands-on learning experiences help participants feel that their time is being valued and prepare them for real-world experience.

A more interactive approach also would better equip the young participants to handle unforeseen challenges in the workplace. Preparation for conflict management, emergency response, and other opportunities to think on their feet would help create appropriate response patterns to these situations.

Curriculum for keeping the job, not just landing it

DCFS ward participants expressed frustration over the program’s curriculum, which sought to equip them to write resumes, speak in interviews, and dress for success. Once participants had landed the job, however, participants felt that the skills required of them for continued success, both job-specific and general professionalism, were lacking.

A curriculum including more extensive job-specific training, while necessitating more specialization, could improve the value participants place on the training, their confidence upon entrée into the job, and their performance in their position. Approaching the program with a focus on long-term results (success in job placement) rather than the short-term goal (the initial placement) could increase the participants’ chances of success and satisfaction upon employment, ultimately fulfilling the vision of the program 

Put job placement options in a realistic, positive perspective

Many participants expressed disappointment in the discord between their career interests and their job placements. Clear communication of the existing job placement options and the viability of placement in their fields of interests could improve the participants’ emotional reactions to receiving their placement.

I would also suggest creating a “game plan” of how youth can work their way into their field of interest, even if their initial placement is not going to reflect their preferences. For example, focusing on the skill sets that will be honed in a daycare center that can be applied to a future restaurant host/hostess position could help change participants’ outlook and increase incentive to stay engaged in their placement.

Provide orientation for subsidized job placement staff prior to DCFS ward employment

One of the most disconcerting responses of the participants in the job placement program was feeling used for cheap labor. Rather than perceiving potential for a long-term relationship with their supervisors, the youth express feeling taken advantage of and doubt about employers’ intentions to keep them on as staff.

While the program is a professional partnership between the job placement sites and the program facilitators, a participant-centered approach is critical to beginning those relationships. In the same way that an unpaid intern is paid in practical on-site experience, the subsidized job placements should reflect compensation in experience and professional relationships for the DCFS ward participants.

An orientation session for the employers stressing the factors and goals of the DCFS ward participants could improve respect and understanding between employer and employee and better prepare employers to make the placement an enriching and mutually beneficial experience.

Train staff to treat DCFS ward participants with respect

 Participants often described feeling treated like “little kids” by the program staff. They perceive stigmatization regarding their DCFS ward status and by their age in comparison to some of the adult clientele that the program aids in job placements.

Just as an orientation session would help relationships between the job placement employers and DCFS ward participants, more extensive training for program staff could improve relationships between the program staff and the DCFS ward participants. Those responsible for training participants ought to be training by example – exercising professionalism, respect and compassion in the program.

While these suggestions are by no means comprehensive, they provide a good launch pad for resourcing youth aging out of alternative care.

 A job placement program can open new doors for vulnerable youth who must secure provision and protection in new ways when they are no longer under the care of the State. Stable employment must be made a priority as it can serve as an alternative to the harmful, yet alluring provision of gang membership, theft, or trusting false promises of protection.

These needs are mirrored across the globe. While this Chapin Hall study focuses on a job placement program here in Cook County, similar studies in other nations could help us tackle the global vulnerabilities of youth aging out of care. The Transitions Initiative seeks to do just that. Keep an eye on IOFA intern Sarah’s updates from Addis Ababa, where she is researching the experiences of youth aging out of care there.


 A sincere thank-you to Amy Dworsky and Judy Havlicek at Chapin Hall – University of Chicago for their research and shared results.

Dworsky, A. & Havlicek, J. (2010). Experiences of Foster Youth in an Employment Training and Job Placement Program. Chicago: Chapin Hall at the University of ChicagoPhoto:


Alexa Schnieders

Program Development Intern