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



Greetings from Addis Ababa

July 12, 2013

It has now been two weeks since I arrived in Addis, and already I have learned much about the situation of orphans and vulnerable children in Ethiopia, as well as the obstacles they face in transitioning out of care and reintegrating into the outside community.  After many long conversations and meetings with various NGOs and care institutions here, this is the general picture of the future of those children growing up in care institutions:



First, most institutions in Addis are orphanages whose main goal is international adoption for their children.  As they grow older, their chances of adoption grow slim.  Many of the orphanages that focus on adoption do not have plans for children who have grown too old for adoption, and the children keep hoping and dreaming that they will leave Ethiopia one day.  Some care institutions move children to group homes after a certain age, or try to reintegrate them with their extended families.

Some care institutions are not interested in adoption.  These institutions can be private and well-funded (like Selam Children’s Villages) or public institutions (like Kolfe and Kechene orphan homes).  The private institutions usually have an organized plan for transition and reintegration, including gradual transitions to independent living, scholarships for university, vocational training, etc.  The public institutions are overpopulated and understaffed, and often do not have the funding or the manpower to thoroughly address the issues that these children will face outside of the only home they have ever known.

The challenges that these children will face when they age out of care are many.  The biggest challenge seems to be the culture shock that they encounter as soon as they leave the institution.  Many of these children have been isolated in these care institutions for their entire lives.  They often do not have the social skills necessary for community life in Ethiopia, which is a different culture than the in which they grew up; this seems to be especially true for young people from large institutions that have a more dormitory living arrangements.  Some institutions work with a village model, raising the children in homes of 8-10 that effectively function as family units.  Still, the children in these village-based organizations have very little contact with the surrounding communities and have developed a certain set of social and cultural skills that allowed them to function within the institution but not outside.  Without social and cultural education, these young people often find it challenging to integrate themselves into the city of Addis Ababa.

A complementary challenge to transition comes from Ethiopian community-based culture itself.  Most children in Addis grow up in a community in which their family is established.  They often do not move far from that community, even when they reach adulthood. Unlike in the United States, people in Addis do not often move to new neighborhoods and communities. Young people leaving care must find homes in established communities and they are often viewed as invaders.  Because no one knows who they are or much about their background, the community often does not trust or engage with these young people.  Being an orphan or an unsupported youth in Ethiopia also carries its own stigma—they are often seen as delinquents, which creates another barrier to community integration.  In a culture and society so focused on communal interaction, this kind of social isolation can be psychologically and emotionally devastating.

Retrak Vocational Training Program

Retrak Vocational Training Program

The social and cultural challenges that these young people face are difficult enough, but often added to this burden is lack of support in securing basic needs.  Some youth attend university, some get vocational training.  The quality of education is variable, depending on not only an individual’s academic performance but also on how much financial support they get from their institution.  Because Addis attracts many people from all regions of Ethiopia and because the youth are the fastest growing population in Ethiopia, there is a shortage of good jobs.  Many young people cannot get a job for at least a year after graduating from college.  If and when young people do find work, they often do not make enough to support themselves.  It is common for young people to live with their parents after they have graduated from university or vocational school until they get married—a good 2-6 years.  Without the support of a family system to fall back on, many orphaned and unsupported youth are forced to take job opportunities that others pass up—jobs that are low-paying.  Some institutions do support their former residents by giving them housing and food allowance, but these are in the minority.

Fortunately, the Ethiopian government is finally realizing that there is a service gap in reintegration and transition support.  Along with moving away from the traditional dormitory/orphanage model of care for unsupported or orphaned children, the government is trying to incorporate models of care that mimic community and village life.  UNICEF Ethiopia is also collaborating with Kolfe and Kechene orphanages in Addis on reintegration education and support programs, though the funding and results of their efforts are still unclear.

All of this information has come from administrative staff of various NGOs and care institutions here in Addis Ababa.  I am very interested to hear from those individuals who have transitioned into the city of Addis about their own experiences, to hear their own individual stories.

If you are interested in learning about the organizations with which IOFA will be working with this summer, here is a list.  Each is doing great work and deserves to be known.

Women In Self Employment (WISE)

Selam Children’s Village

AHOPE Ethiopia

Children’s Heaven

The Organization for Rehabilitation and Development in Amhara (ORDA)

The Italian Center for Children’s Aid (CIAI)


Kingdom Vision International

Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture in Ethiopia (RCVTE)

Sarah Lyn Jones
Transitions Initiative Intern

Photo 1: Retrak Vocational Training Program

Photo 2: AHOPE Kids

Necessary Services for Youth Aging Out of Care

In this report, Children’s Aid Society (CAS) highlights the increasing need to provide services for youth aging out of care. According to CAS, children aging out of foster care in the US are vulnerable to homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, and reduced health. Some of the key areas to focus policies include job placement programs, mental health groups, leadership training, financial management training, education, and housing assistance. As youth caretakers, what aspect would you choose to prioritize over others to help youth transition smoothly? Are there other areas you feel need to be addressed?

To access the full report,


Let Them Live Easy

Young adults Tony Facello (green) and Cornelius Carter work with a group as they try and move a ball without touching it, during an activity at the 10th Annual Utah Youth Summit at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City Wednesday, August 1, 2012.  Approximately 200 youth, ages 14 and older - who are in foster care or have ged outof foster care, will gather together for two days to learn the skills needed to transition into adult living. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News)

Less than a week ago, 200 Utah youth from the foster care system gathered as a collective force for the 10th Annual Utah Youth Summit, each individual met with respect and an unspoken understanding.  The adolescents, ages 14 and older, were youth who would soon be or had already aged out of the foster care system, and shared their stories of struggle and success in order to tackle the heavy topic of life after care.  Taking place on the University of Utah campus, education and inspiration were energy in the atmosphere.  The youth were provided with hope through discussion and activities, bonded by their sameness and beautifully diverse in their differences.  The possibility of a future was revealed in the eyes of one another.  The Summit showcased the strength of adolescent minds brought together and the value of an unrelenting support system that makes individuals feel at home no matter where they are.

Camil Sanchez-Palumbo
IOFA Program Development Intern

Pennsylvania Budget Supports Youth Aging Out of Foster Care


“Young adults aging out of the foster-care system will gain more support under Gov. Tom Corbett’s 2012-13 budget, which extended adoption and guardian subsidies for three years and expanded the eligibility criteria for young adults who can remain in care until they are 21.”

-Marion Callahan

Hats off.

PA Budget Extends Support to Youth Aging Out of Foster Care

Camil Sanchez-Palumbo
IOFA Program Development Intern