Foster care kids too vulnerable to sex traffickers

In July of last year, members of three child-exploitation task forces in Washington went undercover to rescue kids who were being sold for sex. After canvassing areas across the state and contacting young women involved in prostitution, they arrested nine people suspected of forcing children to sell themselves.

Most importantly, the task forces rescued child victims of this terrible crime. Nationally, as a part of the Innocence Lost National Initiative, law enforcement rescued more than 100 sexually exploited children and arrested 150 pimps in 76 cities across the country. While this activity represents a significant step forward in stopping child sex trafficking, there are more victims out there.

Protecting kids is very important to me, not just because I chair the congressional subcommittee overseeing our foster care system, but because I have seen firsthand what life is like on the streets. While working for three decades in law enforcement in King County, and spending a major portion of my career on the Green River Killer case, I witnessed the horrors of child sex trafficking and knew we must do more to protect youth at risk of abuse.

Tragically, many sex trafficking victims are children in the foster care system. Of children reported missing to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children who were also likely sex trafficking victims, 60 percent were in foster care or group homes when they ran away.

These kids were supposed to be protected from abuse, yet they ended up becoming victims of an even more terrible crime. This is a horrible wrong that we cannot ignore. That is why I released a proposal to reform foster care and related programs to prevent kids from winding up as victims.

In drafting the legislation, my subcommittee heard from experts and victims themselves and drew on ideas proposed by members of Congress in both parties. As a result, our draft would require states to identify child victims of sex trafficking and have a plan to help victims. It would provide us with better information to get to the root of the problem and cut the red tape that makes foster youth so vulnerable in the first place.

Even with all the life-changing experiences a new foster kid must endure, bureaucratic rules sometimes keep them from normal activities like spending time with friends, participating in sports, getting a driver’s license or finding a summer job.

I even heard from one youth here in Washington who couldn’t go on vacation with his foster family because the rules didn’t allow him to travel. Imagine the feeling of isolation and hurt these experiences would bring and the attraction that any way out might hold.

The legislation will provide youth in foster care with more opportunities to lead normal lives, actively participate in their communities and ultimately acquire the tools they need to succeed as adults. Under this plan, foster parents could act more like any other parent.

For example, a foster child could play on the basketball team without filling out a dozen state forms, travel with the high school band without getting criminal background checks or have a sleepover at a friend’s house without waiting weeks for the state to give its blessing.

We have unintentionally isolated kids in foster care from their families, peers and communities. Along the way, we increased their risk for even greater dangers, including life on the streets. We must do everything in our power to prevent these children from becoming victims of the horrific crime of sex trafficking, and we must also make sure we don’t make them vulnerable to pimps by isolating them from everyday experiences.

We owe it to these children to ensure our nation’s foster care system does all it can to protect them so they can live safe, happy and successful lives. We have not yet done all we can to live up to that promise.

Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, represents Washington’s 8th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He chairs the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources.