By Conna Craig
In today’s dysfunctional Washington it’s hard to imagine members of Congress reaching across the aisle for something beyond a sound bite. There is far too much bickering about what is and is not “affordable” and what or whom has winning power going into the elections of 2014. Its low approval rating reflects the American people’s impression that whatever Congress is doing, it is not “the people’s business.”
What Congress could do is focus on what matters at this very moment: the need to save our most vulnerable children. It has the capacity to make the difference for a 12-year-old child and whether that child will be spending tonight in a safe, loving family or selling his or her body on the street in order to survive another day.
On a bipartisan basis, Reps. David Reichert, R-Wash., and Rick Nolan, D-Minn., are asking their colleagues, particularly the men, to come together in support of vulnerable young women being abused in the sex trade. They are asking the “Fathers of the Congress” to present “a unified voice on behalf of our most vulnerable daughters” and to sign on to a resolution Tuesday expressing the sense of the Congress that “children trafficked in the United States be treated as victims of crime, and not as perpetrators.”
When a child — a child whose very well-being is assigned to the state — is forced to sell his or her body, how on earth can that same state prosecute and jail that child? In my humble opinion, it’s akin to setting a child on fire and then charging him or her for arson.
Foster children are more likely to be lured into the sex trade than any other youngsters in America. Indeed, 60 percent of children rescued during FBI prostitute sting operations are children coming out of foster care. Think about that for a moment: These are the children who enter the system of “substitute care” as a result of having been born addicted to drugs, or battered, starved or abandoned. These are the very children we, as a society, are charged to “save” from parents unable or unwilling to care for them.
For the past the few years, I have taken a sabbatical from the field of foster care policy because, frankly, I had become weary of sharing my own story of my early years in foster care. At this point my weariness is less important than what my brothers and sisters in “the system” are experiencing. Right now, the federal government admits that 4,973 children are on “runaway status” from foster care; states need only provide that number — not what the states are doing to find those children — to secure federal funding.
Tragically the number that states do not, and cannot, provide, is the number of children who are missing but not reported. These include kids who have run away from foster homes or group homes. No one is looking for these children — yet the foster parents and group homes continue to collect government funds for their care.
Making November 19, 2013 “Our Daughters Are Not for Sale” day is a big step forward toward raising the public’s awareness of the problem. Reps. Reichert and Nolan are making an important contribution to the fight to protect our most vulnerable children. The most important question however, remains: What will we do next? I recommend state-level accountability as a start. We live in a nation with the most advanced technology in the world. It is entirely possible to track every child in our public welfare system from entry to exit, so that no child goes missing and falls into the horrific web of sex trafficking. This is certainly not a partisan issue. Why not start addressing it now?
Conna Craig is president of the Policy Institute for Children, an organization focused on reform of the nation’s foster care laws.