Runaways ‘at High Risk’ for Sex Trafficking? Really?

June 3, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

As I said last time, this article appears bent on finding a scandal where there is none (San Antonio Express News, 5/29/18). Yes, the fact that 1,707 children ran away from Texas foster care last year is important. But so is the fact that almost 1,500 returned within a few days, a point not mentioned by the article.

What the writer hopes to convince her readers with is this:

Texas had 245 foster children listed as runaways as of Tuesday, and they are at high risk of falling prey to sex traffickers, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

The only problem with the claim that the runaways are “at high risk of falling prey to sex traffickers” is that it’s not true. Indeed, there’s no definition of “high risk” that describes a runaway’s actual chances of being trafficked for sex. The writer, Allie Morris, cites the Texas DFPS as her source, but the department’s own report on runaways plainly shows the opposite of Morris’ claim.

To begin with, the data in the DFPS report on sex trafficking of minors has nothing to do with children running away from foster care. The data reported come from a statewide hotline to which allegations of child abuse or neglect can be reported and, if necessary, investigated. Again, that has nothing necessarily to do with foster children, much less those who’ve run away.

In fiscal year 2017, the hotline recorded 697 allegations of child sex trafficking. Of those, an investigation resulted in 40 being termed “Reason to Believe.” Now, the report nowhere defines that term, but it apparently means that someone decided that the claim that a child was trafficked for sex seems more likely than not. That’s about 5.7% who may have been trafficked into sex work.

Later on, the DFPS report states that 35 runaways reported being trafficked for sex, i.e. 2% of the runaways. In other words, the claim that foster care runaways are “at high risk” for being trafficked for sex is pure bunk.

And it’s likely worse than that. Perhaps the single definitive study of child sex-workers was conducted by researchers at John Jay College. They studied underage sex workers in New York City. They found that almost none of the kids had been trafficked.

Although several said that they felt peer pressure to join in, their narratives were generally less about being pressured to participate in CSEC (Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children) markets as they were about economic necessity, fascination, and curiosity with what appeared to be an emerging lifestyle…

We did not find that market facilitators, or pimps, were key actors for initiating youth into the market (8%) or controlling them once they were in the market. Only 10% of the sample (6% of the boys and 14% of girls) reported that they had a market facilitator at the time of the interview.

The point being that neither the Express News article nor the DFPS report makes any effort to explain what they mean by “trafficking.” Many people assume that, if a minor is a sex worker, then he/she must have been forced to do so. Emphatically, that’s not true.

The simple fact is that no one knows the rates of human trafficking for sex, and the DFPS itself admits it in a separate report.

Establishing prevalence is a critical component in the conversation of human trafficking. Prevalence drives all aspects of response from funding to policy, resources to direct service needs, and finally breadth of the continuum of care. Currently, there is no recognized methodology for capturing human trafficking rates within the United States.

The typical elision of the difference between sex work and sex trafficking is reflected in the DFPS report itself. In a section on human trafficking, the report contains this statement:

In the Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth, 5 percent of youth reported having exchanged sex for something of value.

Again, exchanging sex “for something of value” is the definition of sex work, not being forced to do it by someone else.

In short, the Express News article wants a scandal and its writer wasn’t to be deterred just because there’s not one. And, since nothing stirs the blood of readers like imagining droves of children forced into sex work, Allie Morris does what every bad journalist does; she makes stuff up to sell the product.

Texas foster care has a lot of problems and runaways are one of them. But, overwhelmingly, they’re a problem because they reflect the often horrible conditions inflicted on them by CPS and the foster care system, not because some few of them might turn to sex work to make ends meet. Allie Morris would do well to stick to what matters – the many deficiencies of Texas CPS and the foster care system and stop hyperventilating about a problem that, compared to those deficiencies, looms rather small.

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