Are youth placed in congregate care settings more at risk of future commercial sexual exploitation?

Families and communities should expect children placed under the care of the child protection system to be safe from harm. But the emerging data suggest that children in foster care, particularly those in congregate care, are vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Child protection agencies can do more to protect children from harm and ensure that victims receive the services and supports needed to find a permanent family.

– David Sanders, PH.D., EVP of Systems Improvement, Casey Family Programs

Historically, the field of child welfare has perceived child sex trafficking as a criminal justice rather than a child welfare issue. However, the emerging body of work on commercial sexual exploitation of children, or CSEC, reveals a significant overlap between children in foster care and children who are victims of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE).1 This information packet provides background on the overlap between child welfare and CSEC, key data about congregate care and CSEC, the relevant federal law related to foster care and sex trafficking, and resources for addressing CSEC.

This document was prepared for a judicial consultant for Casey Family Programs, in response to a request from a state Office of the Child Advocate, regarding the intersection of congregate care and CSEC.

Child welfare and CSEC: background

The term “sex trafficking” as defined in U.S. Code in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for a commercial sex act. (22 USC § 7102). Crucially, the federal definition of trafficking of a minor does not require proof of force, fraud, or coercion, and it does not require an exchange of money specifically. Rather, in trafficking a minor, the sex can be exchanged for anything of value, such as drugs, shelter, food, etc.2

In recent years, CSEC has been a priority for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, other federal and state agencies,3 many state legislatures, and the U.S. Congress. At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of businesses and philanthropic organizations that have prioritized the issue of trafficking among American children and youth. Legislators, agency leaders, national associations, and advocates have focused on different facets of the issue, including the availability of and access to appropriate services and housing for victims and their families; decriminalization or “safe harbor” laws for victims under 18; prosecution of criminals associated with trafficking, including buyers and sellers; prevention and education regarding trafficking to children, youth, and their caregivers; oversight of agencies (including child welfare, education, and health) working with youth and children who are at-risk for trafficking or who have been trafficked; data collection; and training the workforce to identify and serve children and youth who are at-risk or have been trafficked.

Congregate care and CSEC: key data and considerations

A background of abuse and trauma — along with the instability of caregivers and peers in congregate care settings — can make youth in out-of-home care especially vulnerable to CSE.4 Research and data about children who have been commercially sexually exploited is limited; there are currently no nationally recognized collection or dissemination mechanisms. However, we do know that the average age of entry to trafficking among boys is 11-13 and among girls is 12-14.5 In addition, the overlap with child welfare is significant:6

  • In 2013, 60 percent of the child sex trafficking victims recovered as part of a nationwide child trafficking raid from over 70 cities were children from foster care or group homes.
  • According to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, 70 percent of child sex trafficking survivors identified locally are from foster care.
  • In 2013, 85 percent of sex trafficking victims in New York had prior child welfare involvement.
  • In 2017, Connecticut identified 202 child sex trafficking victims, of which approximately 40 percent were child welfare involved.
  • In 2016, the Florida Department of Children and Families identified 1,382 unique child sex trafficking victims out of the 1,892 reports received.

This overlap is due to a number of factors, including:

  • The experience of abuse and neglect leading to a child’s placement in foster care
    • Studies estimate that 57-95 percent of sex trafficking victims were sexually assaulted as children.7
  • The vulnerability of youth who run away from foster care
    • Of the 18,500 runaways reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in 2016, one in six were likely sex trafficking victims, and 86 percent of these likely sex trafficking victims were in the care of social services or foster care when they went missing.8
    • One in three homeless teens are lured into CSE by a trafficker within 48 hours of leaving home.9

While there is clearly a relationship between youth involved in the child welfare system and youth who are commercially sexually exploited, there are less data specific to youth who are or were placed in congregate care. Practice experience and available data indicate that youth are more likely to run away from congregate care placements,10 and, conversely, youth who run away are more likely to be placed in congregate care placements: “Running away not only places the youth in harm’s way but also frequently jeopardizes current placements and can lead to more restrictive placements once the youth returns.”11 Moreover, youth who are in a congregate care placement when they emancipate from the child welfare system often become homeless when they are discharged from care and their placement, putting them at further risk.12

In addition, information indicates that traffickers target residents of youth shelters, group homes, and foster care facilities in particular, due to some of their inherent vulnerabilities.13 According to the California Child Welfare Council’s 2013 report, Ending the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children: A Call for Multi-System Collaboration in California, 59 percent of the 174 juveniles arrested on prostitution-related charges in Los Angeles County were in the foster care system, and victims were often recruited from group homes by sex traffickers and pimps.14 In Oakland, two CSEC-serving organizations found that of 200 youth served, 53 percent reported having lived in a foster care group home.15 Specifically,

  1. [Some] exploiters are ruthless and violent from the start. They seek out vulnerable children at schools, homeless shelters, malls, bus depots, and foster care group homes.
  2. System involvement may increase the risk of exploitation — placing a young girl in a group home near an area known for prostitution, for example, may increase the likelihood that she is recruited by exploiters.
  3. Exploiters may actively seek out group homes and shelters to recruit vulnerable children.
  4. Sites of increased vulnerability [include] group homes, detention facilities, schools in areas known for prostitution, and other high-risk neighborhoods.5

Although there is currently no federal requirement to track data regarding children in the child welfare system who are victims of commercial sexual exploitation, the 2014 Strengthening Families and Preventing Sex Trafficking Act mandates that child welfare agencies will soon be required to collect and report these data as part of AFCARS (Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System).

Looking at the risk factors for CSEC, it is clear that many, if not all, reflect the experience of children who have been abused or neglected. These risk factors include:5

  • A history of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
  • Parental alcohol and substance abuse
  • Challenges at school, such as truancy and learning disabilities
  • Runaways
  • History of exploitation in the community or the family
  • Exposure to domestic violence
  • Lack of supervision, care, and basic necessities

Even children who have not been formally removed from their homes are at higher risk for CSE, since many children who have come to the attention of the child welfare system have experienced some or all of the above factors. However, the experience of foster care can increase a child’s vulnerability to becoming victimized. Many of these issues have been highlighted by and are key priorities of the National Foster Youth and Alumni Policy Council, a group of youth from across the country who use their lived experience in foster care to develop and provide consultation on policy that has affected their lives.16,17 For example, some survivors formerly in foster care have shared that they were used to the idea of having their caregivers paid to care for them, such that becoming a means of income for someone else did not seem like such a significant shift, even if that individual was a sex trafficker.18

In addition, the power imbalance between foster youth and their foster parents or group home staff may increase their vulnerability for accepting a power imbalance with a trafficker later on. Youth who have been abused and neglected seek love, attention, and acceptance, which many traffickers use to gain trust. And because they have not been raised in safe, nurturing environments, they may not have the ability to recognize danger or know how to protect themselves. For youth in group homes, the likelihood that a consistent adult is present and attentive enough to recognize warning signs may also be significantly lower.

The relationship between congregate care and vulnerability to sex trafficking can become cyclical — not only are children who are placed in congregate care potentially more vulnerable to becoming victims of CSE, as discussed above, but victims of CSE who enter or return to care are often placed in congregate care settings, which can then make them vulnerable to becoming trafficked again. Youth who have been sexually exploited tend to distrust professionals, look for ways to protect their perpetrators, and fear retaliation. They may not recognize their experiences as exploitative and be reticent to report or share their traumatic experiences, all of which may pose challenges to engaging in treatment.18 Although some jurisdictions have tried to address the needs of sexually exploited youth by placing them in institutional facilities, in general, congregate care settings are not well equipped to address the specific needs of CSEC victims; victims who are not adequately and appropriately supported are at high risk of returning to their trafficker or of being victimized by another trafficker.5,18 Safe, supportive, and appropriate family-based placements are a vital but often missing piece in the work of helping a trafficking victim become a trafficking survivor.

Addressing the issues: jurisdictional approaches and resources

There is a growing trend of specialized child welfare programs to support CSEC victims.5,20 For example, Florida is training foster parents that are specifically designated to care for CSEC victims, while Los Angeles County has developed the Succeeding Through Achievement and Resilience (STAR) Court, a specialized court for CSE girls. Connecticut’s child welfare agency has developed a comprehensive protocol for screening every child who enters the system for CSE, which it uses to assist in addressing the needs of those who are identified as victims or possible victims of CSE.

Other highly respected national organizations are developing guides and resources to support a three-branch approach involving legislative, judicial, and executive perspectives, as well as conducting much needed research in this area, including:

  1. National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: Missing Children, State Care, and Child Sex Trafficking: Engaging the Judiciary in Building a Collaborative Response
  2. Rights4Girls: Child Welfare Issue Area
  3. Shared Hope International:
  4. Polaris: Child Trafficking and Child Welfare

A selection of other resources addressing the intersection between congregate care and sex trafficking is also provided in the table below.

Congregate Care And Sex Trafficking: Additional Resources

California Child Welfare Council, Commercial Sexual Exploitation: The Intersection with Child Welfare (n.d.)
This factsheet provides a high level overview of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) and the vulnerability of youth in foster care, including group homes. Challenges for child welfare systems are included, as well as examples of child welfare interventions from Connecticut, Florida, and Illinois.

Casey Family Programs, Addressing Child Sex Trafficking from a Child Welfare Perspective (2014)
Child welfare leaders from across the country were asked to participate in a survey regarding the biggest challenges that child welfare agencies face in providing services to CSEC victims, and what the child welfare system can do to prevent and respond to child sex trafficking. About a third of respondents identified a lack of safe placement options as a significant challenge for their agency.

National Center for Youth Law, From Abused and Neglected to Abused and Exploited: The Intersection of the Child Welfare System with the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (2014)
This report provides an overview of child welfare and a case study example of a girl who was placed in group care while in the child welfare system and subsequently became a victim of sex trafficking. The report highlights a number of risk factors, including placement in a group home, and makes recommendations for prevention, including placing children in family-based settings rather than group homes.

National Foster Care Youth & Alumni Policy Council, Reducing Vulnerability of Foster Youth to Predators and Sex Trafficking (2012)
The Policy Council has been exploring the issue of vulnerability to sexual abuse and crimes among foster youth and how to better address these challenges. This document includes recommendations compiled from the results of a poll administered to youth volunteers.

Richmond School of Law, The Civil Rights of Sexually Exploited Youth in Foster Care (2015)
This legal analysis includes a discussion of the number of children in foster care who run away, the number of children who are victims of CSE, and the intersection of these two groups. Laws and case law relevant to the rights of youth in foster care and victims of CSE are also discussed.

Intersection of foster care and sex trafficking: relevant federal law

There are three key federal anti-trafficking laws. Select key provisions of these laws are summarized below: 21

  • Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, amended in 2016
    • Addresses the prevention, protection, and prosecution of human trafficking, including sex trafficking and labor trafficking
    • Created the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (PITF), a cabinet-level entity responsible for coordinating U.S. government-wide efforts to combat trafficking in persons
  • Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (JVTA) of 2015
    • Strengthens services for victims of human trafficking
    • Amends the Child Abuse Prevention And Treatment Act (CAPTA) to add human trafficking and child pornography as forms of child abuse
    • Amends the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) to make youth who are victims of severe forms of trafficking eligible for services
  • Strengthening Families and Preventing Sex Trafficking Act of 2014, which established a National Advisory Committee on the Sex Trafficking of Children and Youth in the U.S., requires the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to report to Congress about children who run away from foster care and their risk of being sex trafficking victims, and requires child welfare systems to:
    • Demonstrate that they have consulted with other specified agencies with experience with at-risk youth and developed policies and procedures to identify, document and determine appropriate services for any child or youth in foster care who is a victim or at-risk of sex trafficking
    • Provide appropriate services to victims of sex trafficking
    • Develop and implement protocols to locate children missing from foster care and report missing children to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and to develop protocols for locating missing or runaway children
    • Report instances of sex trafficking to law enforcement and to provide information regarding sex trafficking victims to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
    • Promote normalcy for children and youth in foster care by allowing them to more easily participate in age-appropriate social, scholastic and enrichment activities
    • Limit Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA) as a permanency plan for youth age 16 and older
    • Provide important documents to youth aging out of foster care, including their health insurance information and medical records.

Additional legislative efforts have been made at the state level. For more information about state legislation, please see:

1 Other common terms are Domestic Child Sex Trafficking (DCST) or Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST).
2 U.S. House of Representatives, Office of the Law Revision Counsel. (n.d.). 22 USC 7102: Definitions. Retrieved from
3 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children, Youth and Families. (n.d.) Guidance to states and services on addressing human trafficking of children and youth in the United States. Retrieved from
4 Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2017). Human trafficking and child welfare: A guide for child welfare agencies. Retrieved from
5 California Child Welfare Council. (n.d.-a). Ending the commercial sexual exploitation of children: A call for multi-system collaboration in California. Retrieved from
6 Rights4Girls. (n.d.) Child welfare and domestic child sex trafficking. Retrieved from, para.3
7 Lillie, M. (n.d.). An unholy alliance: The connection between foster care and human trafficking. Retrieved from
8 National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. (2017). Child sex trafficking. Retrieved from
9 National District Attorneys Association, National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse. (2016). CASE campaign against sexual exploitation. Retrieved from, para.1
10 North Carolina Department of Social Services, & Family and Children’s Resource Program. (2014). Preventing and responding to runaways from foster care. Fostering Perspectives,18(2). Retrieved from; Pergamit, M. & Ernst, M. (2011). Running away from foster care: Youths’ knowledge and access of services. Darby, PA: DIANE Publishing.
11 Crosland, K. & Dunlap, G. (2015). Running away from foster care: What do we know and what do we do? Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24(6), 1697-1706, p. 1698.
12 National Conference of State Legislatures. (2016). Homeless and runaway youth. Retrieved from
13 National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, & National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. (2015). Missing children, state care, and child sex trafficking: Engaging the judiciary in building a collaborative response. Retrieved from
14 Birge, E., Chon, K., & Dukes, C. (n.d.). The commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC): What schools need to know to understand and respond to human trafficking [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from, p. 27
15 California Child Welfare Council. (n.d.-a), p. 11
16 For more information about its work on reducing the reliance on congregate care and vulnerability to trafficking while in foster care, please see The National Foster Care Youth & Alumni Policy Council. (n.d.-a). Vulnerability. Retrieved from
17 The National Foster Care Youth & Alumni Policy Council. (n.d.-b) Reducing reliance on congregate care. Retrieved from
18 California Child Welfare Council. (n.d.-b). Commercial sexual exploitation: The intersection with child welfare. Retrieved from
19 Ijadi-Maghsoodi, R., Cook, M., Barnert, E. S., Gaboian, S., and Bath, E. (2016). Understanding and responding to the needs of commercially sexually exploited youth. Child & Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 25(1), 107–122. Retrieved from
20 Shared Hope Council. (2016). JuST Response Council Protective Response Model. Retrieved from
21 National Human Trafficking Hotline. (n.d.). Federal law. Retrieved from