Every month, more than 100 kids run away from foster homes throughout Washington.
Some end up in the arms of pimps posing as boyfriends.
The state — acting as their legal guardian — must find them before the wrong guys do.
At least 500 minors work in King County’s commercial sex trade every day, according to conservative estimates. Advocates believe more than half of those children are in the foster-care system, making it a pipeline to prostitution.
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“They have low self-esteem and are looking to replace love they never had,” says King County Sheriffs Office Detective Brian Taylor, an expert witness on sex trafficking and member of the Street Crimes Unit.
Taylor says it’s common to meet foster kids devoted to pimps, who purport to care for the children while posting their photos to Backpage.com and selling their bodies to strangers.
“The underlying cause is the abuse and neglect that led them to foster care and the abuse and neglect they’ve experienced in foster care,” says Melinda Giovengo, executive director of YouthCare in Seattle.
With one in six foster kids moved between three or more homes within the first year, escape is common.
Something is wrong.
Though Washington is legally responsible for foster kids coerced into prostitution, Child Protective Services has not stepped up to address their plight. Sex trafficking remains outside the agency’s purview — it responds to cases where children are abused by family members and caregivers, but not to cases of pimps or strangers who pay them to perform sexual acts.
No matter how overloaded the system gets, CPS should identify victims and move beyond simply placing these kids in homes where foster parents may lack training.
Under the terms of the 2004 Braam settlement, the state Department of Social and Health Services was supposed to reduce the number of runaways statewide, says Columbia Legal Services attorney Casey Trupin.
The agency failed.
DSHS has six people on staff trained to find missing kids. That’s not enough. The agency needs more of these “locators.”
Once the children are found, it’s also critical they get treatment.
Last year, the Center for Children & Youth Justice worked with 200 stakeholders to develop a statewide model that identifies sexually exploited children, offers them immediate safe haven and access to services and counseling. The new protocol is being implemented in six counties and shows early promise of breaking down silos between agencies.
In Olympia, lawmakers can help these kids by passing Senate Bill 6126. The proposal would provide each child with an attorney to help them navigate the legal system. This could improve a child’s chances of finding a permanent home and staying out of the reach of pimps who would exploit them.
A separate bill to extend foster care to children until the age of 21 also deserves another look.
Mandy Urwiler was just 13 when three classmates approached her about “turning tricks” for them. She refused and was beat up. Once a chronic runaway, Urwiler says many others she met on the streets worked in the sex trade.
“These pimps are some of the most amazing people at reading body language,” Urwiler remembers. “The girls with their head held high are fine. The girls who are slouched are easy targets.”
Now 19, Urwiler has found stability and safe housing thanks to the state’s Extended Foster Care program.
Too many other kids who run away from foster care are not as lucky as Urwiler.
When parents fail their children and give them up to the state, they are exposing them to a foster-care bureaucracy that is not equipped to protect each and every child from predators.
Sexual exploitation of kids becomes a problem the rest of us cannot ignore.
Thanh Tan’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org