Thank you for being here today. Chairman Reichert, Ranking Member Doggett, and members of the Subcommittee on Human Resources, thank you for holding this important hearing on preventing and addressing sex trafficking of youth in foster care. I am pleased to have the opportunity to tell your committee about legislation that I have introduced in the Senate.
Chairman and Ranking Member, as you know, there is an epidemic of abuse taking place in America today. Recent reports estimate that hundreds of thousands of children and youth are at risk for domestic sex trafficking. Too many of these emancipated youth turn 18, pack their few belongings in a trash bag, and are driven to homeless shelters, leaving them vulnerable and exposed to traffickers and other predators.
While in foster care, children and youth are also at increased risk for trafficking. In order to combat domestic sex trafficking and improve outcomes for children and youth in foster care, systemic changes need to be made in the current child welfare system.
The legislation I have introduced in the Senate, the Improving Outcomes for Youth At Risk for Sex Trafficking, otherwise known as IO Youth, addresses some of the endemic and widespread conditions in the child welfare and foster care systems that make children and youth particularly vulnerable to being sexually trafficked.
I would like to describe the highlights of the legislation for the subcommittee. Chairman, I am sure many Americans would be surprised to learn that most child welfare agencies will not serve trafficked children and youth who are not in the custody of the biological or foster family or living in a group home.
Often, these children, who are not legally able to give consent for sex, are arrested for prostitution and referred to the juvenile justice system. My bill requires States to provide services to youth who may have been trafficked or are at the risk of being trafficked. It also redirects Social Services Block Grant funds to improve the current court system to better identify and address the needs of trafficked youth. I hope these provisions will promote healthy development, increase opportunities for foster children to form meaningful connections, and reduce the risk of vulnerability to domestic sex trafficking and other negative outcomes.
Another major risk factor for vulnerability to domestic sex trafficking for older youth in the child welfare system is a continued reliance on congregate care facilities, sometimes referred to as group homes. These facilities are routinely targeted by traffickers and are often warehouses for youth who are rarely, if ever, allowed to engage in healthy social activities. My legislation refocuses Federal priorities on connecting vulnerable youth with caring, permanent families and limits Federal reimbursement for very young children and, after a certain duration, for older youth.
Many youth in foster care report that they might not have gone into foster care in the first place had preventative services been available to their biological family, which could have kept them safely at home. IO Youth responds to the need for preventive services, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment for fragile families, by redirecting funds from the Social Services Block Grant to address this need as well as to enhance and improve child welfare systems. Youth in foster care routinely report that they feel uninvolved, unaware, and disconnected to any planning around their care or future.
They are not informed of their rights while in foster care. This can lead to a sense of disenfranchisement and a lack of connection to siblings, relatives, or other caring adults. In many cases, this lack of connection contributes to the void so often preyed on by traffickers. My bill requires that State child welfare agencies provide ongoing family funding for older youth in foster care as well as greater participation of youth in planning for their future. We want to find those families for them.
It also encourages States to find individuals willing to be involved on an ongoing basis with the youth in foster care. Individuals who work with victims of domestic sex trafficking tell us that the single biggest challenge to successful intervention with these victims is a lack of accessible and affordable housing.
For older youth who have been emancipated from foster care, not having a place to sleep is often a reason why they enter the sex trade. Chairman Reichert and Ranking Member Doggett, thanks a lot. And thanks again for the opportunity to share highlights of my legislation.
I look forward to working with you and other members of the subcommittee as we move forward to prevent and address domestic sex trafficking. Well, again, if any Members have questions for Senator Hatch or any of the other colleagues that have testified today, you are free to submit them in writing. And now we will move on to our second panel, if they would please take their seats. Happy to see you all here today. Thank you for being here. The Honorable Bobbe J. Ashley Harris, child welfare policy associate, Texans Care for Children.
Thank you all for being here. Thank you so much, Mr. I want to say thank you to you, the members of the committee, and the Human Rights Project for Girls for the invitation to be here today. A little bit about myself: Throughout that time, from the ages of 10 to 17, I was a victim of sexual exploitation and trafficking here, domestically, in the United States throughout the States of California, Nevada, Oregon, and, of course, your State, Washington. I am here to tell you why I and other youth in foster care are rendered more vulnerable to be sexually trafficked.
So, first of all, we accept and normalize being used as an object for financial gain. We also experience various people who control and come in and out of our lives.
We lack opportunities to gain meaningful relationships and positive attachments. So how do we accept and normalize being used as an object for financial gain? As we all know, there is money provided to caregivers by the agencies to provide and serve the youth. Often, this money is used by caregivers for their personal use or the use of their families or biological children. And, currently, from my knowledge, there is no system set up to guarantee that the money is actually being utilized for the child that is within the placement.
It is not my worry. And so what we began to do as the youth in care is normalize and accept that our purpose is of being a financial benefit of others. And so, because of this, it makes it harder for a youth and even for myself in my story to have seen the difference in bringing in finances into the foster home or of bringing money to an exploiter and their stable.
So foster care normalizes that other people are supposed to control our lives and circumstances. We also lack opportunities to gain meaningful relationships and positive attachments. Like me and many other youth in care, we become accustomed to being isolated, much like the victims of domestic violence. And these exploiters go without fear of punishment due to the lack of attention when young people from this population go missing.
No one looks for us. I really want to make this clear: No one keeps us on their radar. The system just makes no effort. And, oftentimes, group homes will avoid reporting youth missing due to interrupting payment. And, oftentimes, from the system, it is always assumed that we have willingly run away. Many times, that is not the case. Many times, we are kidnapped or other circumstances. This the exploiters use to their advantage. I believe child welfare agencies should be working with local programs which support and provide resources to youth who have been sexually exploited to enhance their responses with working with these youth to transition into a healthier lifestyle.
They also can learn ways to identify these youth. For myself in care, there was many times that I had many absences and people knew I was absent, but those were red flags that should have been paid attention to. Child welfare agencies also need to figure out ways to make these children visible when they go missing. I am pretty sure that there are many people in society that would be willing to help, but they are not aware that these children are missing and that somebody cares about what has happened to them.
This means that the agencies should be actively working to gain and maintain these resources to do so. You should have a constant ally throughout their time in care, as it is a great resource that some agencies do work with mentorship programs. Oftentimes, the mentoring goes uncontinued if the youth is not in placement. So I believe that these youths should be provided a constant ally throughout their time in care, and this person should be available whether or not the youth is currently in placement.
This also helps in regards to when the youth are on the streets or in the process of being exploited. And, lastly, we need to ensure that these conversations are actually followed with Federal actions from the input received here today. In addition to all that I have stated here, I also serve on the National Foster Care Youth and Alumni Policy Council, and we have also been actively working to provide recommendations to address this issue amongst this population. So I want to say thank you again, Chairman, members of the committee, and the Human Rights Projects for Girls, and the audience, for taking the time to receive my contributions.
Thank you to all who work on behalf of these children. You are all appreciated with all you do to end the vulnerability of all children. And I let her go a little bit long because I think we all agree that is special testimony that we all need to hear. It is very compelling. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, thank you for inviting me to speak about this problem of sex trafficking of our youth in foster care in the United States.
As you know, the National Center is a private nonprofit in operation since These are specialized case management teams that handle cases of missing children who are also possible sex trafficking victims. Since , NCMEC has served as a clearinghouse for information and provides analytical support to the 66 Innocence Lost task forces throughout the country.
These operations have rescued more than 2, children who have been trafficked and arrested more than 1, pimps. Several of these prosecutions have resulted in life sentences. In fact, we have learned that most of the victims of child sex trafficking are American kids who are trafficked in small towns and large urban areas.
If people are not aware of it, they are not looking for it. How prevalent is child sex trafficking? This number has tripled since we started comparing missing children to trafficked children. An often overlooked aspect of child sex trafficking is that it is also a problem of missing children. Many child sex trafficking victims are missing from their parents, legal guardians, or foster care placements. These are the most vulnerable of children. They actively target runaways and then lure them into the sex trade using psychological manipulation, illegal drugs, and violence.
Foster children are easy targets for pimps.