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. 
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.  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.” 
“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.  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.”  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.
Program Development Intern