WASHINGTON — When a group of California school districts teamed up with law enforcement agencies and others to share information about child sex trafficking, it took only days before they were helping the first victim of the crime.
Since the collaborative effort began in 2008, the program has identified and helped many more victims and potential victims, said one of its creators, Jenee Littrell, an assistant principal at Grossmont Union High School District in San Diego County.
Adults at schools – from teachers to bus drivers to food service workers – can advocate for victims of child trafficking if they’re trained to learn the warning signs and respond in the right ways, Littrell said in testimony at a Senate hearing Tuesday chaired by Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C.
“In many cases, the adults on campus are the last responsible adults to touch these young people’s lives before they are victimized or lost to this crime,” Littrell said.
The hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s panel on children, which Hagan chairs, examined what the federal government and states can do to prevent the abuse of children and adolescents through trafficking and re-homing, where parents give away their children to people through Internet ads.
Megan Twohey, a Thomson Reuters reporter who exposed re-homing in a report late last year, testified that her investigation found that parents who no longer wanted their adopted children gave them to strangers with a simple notarized document assigning power of attorney. Child abuse experts said that the background of the children – many of them adopted from overseas – and the way they were advertised made them “ripe for exploitation,” Twohey told the senators.
She described several examples of her findings, including the case of a 10-year-old boy adopted from foster care whose mother solicited a new family through a Yahoo group and placed the boy with an Illinois couple.
“She had no idea the Illinois woman’s children had been removed after officials determined she suffered ‘severe psychiatric problems’ as well as ‘violent tendencies.’ Or that the man had an affinity for young boys that he would later share with an undercover agent in a pedophile chat room,” Twohey told the panel.
Four states – Florida, Wisconsin, Louisiana and Colorado – enacted new restrictions on child advertising, custody transfers or both since the Reuters series was published in September, Twohey told lawmakers.
Joo Yeun Chang, who oversees federal foster care and adoption assistance programs for the Department of Health and Human Services, said child welfare issues, including adoption and neglect, are governed by state laws. Parents who place their children with an unfit caregiver could be breaking those laws, she said.
Chang’s agency, the Children’s Bureau of the HHS, issued guidance to states on May 30 about how to support children and families in disrupted adoptions. The document encourages state agencies to develop post-adoption services, such as counseling and crisis call centers.
“The practice of re-homing is unacceptable, is clearly an act of abuse and neglect, and should receive the full attention of child welfare agencies,” Chang testified.
In many cases, teachers, social workers and others don’t identify child victims, often because they aren’t trained to handle it, Hagan said at the hearing.
“With proper guidance, these dedicated professionals can play a critical role, both by preventing these practices and by offering potentially life-saving assistance to those children who need it the most,” she said.
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., said there’s “no greater bipartisan issue than the mutual desire to keep our children safe and healthy in protective and loving homes.” He added that he believed the problems could be best solved locally. Enzi said he was especially interested in Littrell’s story about how schools and others collaborated to help trafficking victims.
Abigail English, director of the Center for Adolescent Health & the Law in Chapel Hill, N.C., said at the hearing that the federal government could do more.
“One of the major things that the federal government can do is not only to develop standards and guidelines but to provide funding,” she said. “And in this environment it’s very difficult to see where the kind of funding that really is needed to take some of these best practices to scale is going to come from. However, we shouldn’t abandon that as a goal.”
Hagan and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced a bill last year that would help social service providers identify and counsel child victims and ensure that law enforcement can better track missing children.
Rubio spoke at another hearing on Tuesday about forced labor and modern-day slavery in East Asia. It was held by the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, where the Florida senator is the ranking Republican. He said Americans should try to stigmatize the sex trafficking industry.
“We have to be very clear in that there is nothing acceptable about Americans going abroad to one of these countries and going into brothels at all, not to mention those that have people underage working there,” he said.
Hagan said that the average age of child trafficking victims in the United States is 11 to 14. These are children who are “obviously vulnerable,” she said in an interview after the hearing, and ways should be found to help schools identify them and get them the help they need.