As young adults age out of the U.S. foster care system, some inevitably fall through society’s cracks, becoming homeless shortly after leaving state care. But others aren’t accounted for in that data: Thousands of kids nationwide go missing from state care every year, putting them in danger of exploitation and human trafficking.
In Washington, 11,245 children were placed in state custody for a minimum of one day in state fiscal year 2022, according to data provided by the Department of Children, Youth and Families. In this time frame, 435 (3.7 percent) of these children went missing from Washington’s child welfare system.
In DCYF’s Region 6, which includes Clark County, that percentage is even higher: 137 of 2,449 children (5.3 percent) went missing from care. The department noted that the majority of missing children are found and returned to care.
Many of these youth ran away from state care for various reasons, such as to see family or a partner, because they don’t feel a connection to their foster placement, or to abuse drugs or alcohol, according to the department.
Some youth disappear for other reasons. The state agency recently came under scrutiny when a woman allegedly kidnapped her 5-year-old foster child, who was found in Vietnam and brought back to Washington after a three-week search.
At age 17, Vancouver resident Angellina Ricker went missing from Brentwood Place Group Home in Lacey, her foster placement at the time. Crime Stoppers of South Sound reported the disappearance in July 2016, stating that she had run away, possibly back to Vancouver.
“They called me in as a runaway, but there was a really messed-up situation that had happened,” Ricker said. She claims a man trafficked her in Thurston County, keeping her at a hotel where she was forced into prostitution.
She managed to escape after a few weeks and reported it to law enforcement, she said. Several people have since been charged for sex trafficking minors and other victims out of motel rooms in Tacoma, Lakewood, Olympia, Lacey and Bellingham beginning in 2016.
Youth without support systems, especially runaway and homeless youth, face higher risks of human trafficking, according to the Family and Youth Services Bureau. The department recognizes this risk and aims to address it through its Missing and Exploited Youth Program, launched as a result of House Bill 1775 in 2020.
“Not every youth who goes reported as missing or goes missing for a period of time — hours, overnight — is going to be out and exposed to trafficking and exploitation,” said Cameron Norton, the program’s manager. But it’s not “uncommon” for sexual exploitation to occur, she added.
DCYF is working to compile more accurate data regarding sexual exploitation of youth in state care, a challenging task given that some youth don’t even realize they were victims. Stigma, self-blame, fear and a lack of education around trafficking can all lead a young person not to report a trafficking incident.
“Trafficking isn’t always like a strong arm-type situation. It often is tied into what they perceive as a romance or something of that nature,” Norton said. “It might take them working with providers for a while and therapists or whatever for it to resonate with them, like, ‘Wait a minute, I was exploited by this person.’ ”
Alaire De Salvo, shelter and outreach director at Janus Youth Programs, a nonprofit organization for at-risk youth in Washington and Oregon, said sex trafficking among foster youth in Clark County is “absolutely” an issue. Being in the foster care system, being homeless and previous sexual abuse are all factors that might lead a young person to be targeted or groomed by traffickers, according to De Salvo.
“The reason people end up in foster care is because they have been abused or neglected in some way,” she said. “So the incidence of them having a history of sexual abuse or sexual trauma is much, much higher if they’re in the foster care system or have ever been in the foster care system, which makes them much higher risk for being victimized in the trafficking world.”
Janus Youth provides outreach services and case management to youth who have experienced sexual exploitation, serving nearly 100 Clark County youth over about six years. “And that’s youth who have been pointedly identified as being victims in Clark County and who have agreed to ongoing case management services,” De Salvo said. “I feel like it’s one of those things that there’s probably a whole lot more of it than what we’re able to track or know.”
Sexual traumas can impede young people’s transitions to adult life, including their search for housing. Ricker, who now lives in a tent in downtown Vancouver, has trouble trusting home security systems. She has intense anxiety when she feels exposed and unable to protect herself.
“I feel most vulnerable at two times: when I’m sleeping and when I’m doing something like using the restroom or showering,” Ricker said.
For Norton, breaking down misconceptions and increasing education around trafficking is crucial to keep children safe.
“Kids are kids. They can’t consent to this,” Norton said. “I think that’s important for people to recognize. No matter how that youth may be presenting to you, that is still a young person who has experienced awful things.”
If you suspect someone you know is being trafficked, call 911 or contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. For more information on reporting trafficking incidents in Clark County, go to https://tinyurl.com/yrhe9uju.
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