The plight of foster kids and other vulnerable youth came into painful relief this week when the FBI announced raids in 76 U.S. cities to break up prostitution rings exploiting more than 100 teens.
The minors were between 13 and 17 years old.
In addition to the FBI’s ongoing efforts to stop these criminal enterprises, the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Homeland Security also have special programs to help educators identify at-risk children before they are lured into more trouble, as the Center for Public Integrity reported last February.
Schools are in a position to serve as the front lines of detection efforts, according to federal officials who attended a forum on child sex trafficking held in February at the Department of Education in Washington, D.C.
A California educator who spoke about her experiences at the forum was Jenee Littrell, director of guidance and wellness at the Grossmont Union High School District in San Diego County.
She said recruiters for pimps — boys and girls the same age of victims — befriend candidates at school or at parties, or online. They often zero in on kids in foster care and who have special needs, or who are suffering from troubled home lives.
Littrell said educators should take note if they start seeing kids talking about traveling to other cities, or flashing around money they didn’t have before, and buying their friends presents and lunch.
She also said her district was looking closely at how common disciplinary practices at schools have inadvertently increased the risk that troubled kids will hit the streets.
Littrell recounted how two girls at a school had become increasingly aggressive toward staff members who had no idea that both teens had become involved in child prostitution. When one of the girls was suspended for poor behavior, Littrell said, the student was discovered roaming a race track an hour later.
Alice Hill, a Homeland Security senior counselor, also attended the forum in February. She said that her department considers human trafficking, including the smuggling of minors, a “national-security threat.”
In 2011, a Center for Public Integrity report about minors caught along the U.S.-Mexico border highlighted cases of girls smuggled into the United States from Mexico and later forced into prostitution.
This week, when FBI officials announced the raids, they said that some vulnerable children were recruited into prostitution right out of foster homes.
In the San Francisco Bay Area — where 12 children were rescued this past week — Oakland Police Department Lt. Kevin Wiley spoke about how it takes more than police to help kids stay clear of those who will exploit them.
“They usually get into this because they are running away from something else,” said Wiley. “You’re trying to find out what brought them into this lifestyle in the first place. It goes way beyond law enforcement to solve this epidemic.”