In Five States, There Was No Evidence That Many Children in Foster Care Had a Screening for Sex Trafficking When They Returned After Going Missing
WHY WE DID THIS STUDY
In 2020, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received more than 17,000 reports of possible child sex trafficking. Traffickers are known to prey on vulnerable children with low self-esteem and minimal social support, and histories of abuse, neglect, and trauma-traits that are common among children in foster care. Because of these children's heightened vulnerability, identifying who is, or is at risk of becoming, a victim of sex trafficking is a vital step to providing children in foster care with prevention and treatment services.
HOW WE DID THIS STUDY
We identified five States that (1) reported the largest number of children in "runaway status" in fiscal year 2018, and (2) required children to be screened for sex trafficking after returning from going missing from foster care. From these States, we selected a random sample of children. We reviewed foster care case file documentation for 413 children to determine the extent to which the children in our sample were screened (as required) to identify whether they were victims of sex trafficking. Additionally, we assessed the extent to which States' policies may have contributed to the screening practices that we observed.
WHAT WE FOUND
In 5 States, the case files of 65 percent of children in our review (268 out of 413 children) did not have evidence of a screening—following each child's return to foster care—to identify whether they were victims of sex trafficking. Such screenings are required by Federal law and State policy. Further, we found that for male children, the proportion of case files that had no evidence of a screening was greater than for female children (72 percent of males compared to 59 percent of females).
We found that when screenings occurred, they often lacked the information needed to ensure that children were accurately identified as victims of sex trafficking. Documentation showed instances in which (1) screenings did not include comprehensive questions to determine children's experiences while missing from care; (2) screenings did not have evidence of followup when children did not answer screening questions; and (3) screeners relied on children's self-disclosures to make determinations. Additionally, one-third of screenings conducted did not have a conclusion documented (e.g., whether the child was a victim of sex trafficking, whether more information was needed).
However—although such screenings are not required—we found a few examples of screenings that included an assessment of children's future risk for becoming victims of sex trafficking.
Finally, we found limitations in States' oversight mechanisms and policies that may have contributed to some of the poor screening practices we identified. Some States lacked in their ability to identify whether screenings for sex trafficking had occurred, limiting the States' ability to oversee and ensure that these screenings were occurring when required. Additionally, although such policies are not required, none of the States that we reviewed had policies for identifying children in foster care who are at risk of becoming victims of sex trafficking when they return to foster care after going missing.
WHAT WE RECOMMEND
To better protect children in foster care from the dangers of sex trafficking and ensure that victims of sex trafficking are identified and provided with needed support services, we recommend that the ACF:
- work with States to improve compliance with requirements to screen children who return to foster care after going missing to identify whether they are victims of sex trafficking;
- encourage States to evaluate the value of adding an assessment of risk for sex trafficking when children return to foster care after going missing; and
- conduct oversight activities to identify States that may not screen all children for sex trafficking when they return to foster care after going missing.
ACF concurred with all three recommendations.