It might be pushing it to call the Trump administration’s family separation policy a cause of the national rise in the sexual trafficking of children, but there is evidence to suggest what analysts would call an “association.”
The years of the separation program, which started, we now know, in the early days of the Trump administration, in 2017, a year before it was publicly announced by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, were years in which human trafficking became one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States.
More data to support the “association”: the children being separated from their parents were statistically perfect targets for trafficking. They weren’t just unparented and they weren’t just homeless, they were internationally homeless migrant refugees… perfectly unprotected from trafficking predators. They checked box after box on the list of vulnerabilities to sex trafficking victimization.
And beyond the statistical data, there is this real-world information. Border control officers and journalists on both sides of the Mexican-America border have noticed – where large groups of displaced children gather, known traffickers work the crowds of boys and girls.
Rising numbers of cases of child sex trafficking precede the Trump administration for reasons that go well beyond immigration policy. Experience over a decade dealing with an epidemic of children being forced into sexual slavery has produced some innovative and early results suggest successful programs.
It’s also produced a body of evidence that – had the Trump administration cared to learn about it – might have prevented the family separation policy that was sure to make the problem of children trafficked for sex worse.
Increased trafficking of children means more children are in need of rescue. And real rescue means more than just taking them away from their predators, their managers, their pimps. It means more than just finding them new homes. It means making those foster homes part of a support system to help these young victims recover from, and progress to, new and better lives.
Most experts and some research say a foster home is the best place for an abused child. But, really, in America, there are nowhere near enough of them. There is a big national deficit in foster homes for kids without special issues, without special needs, without the trauma of sexual abuse and exploitation.
The institutional alternative, the group home, has in-built problems that can be summed up this way — each new member of the group can change its dynamics and change the behaviors of each of the other members. Saving lives one at a time is hard enough, trying to save bunches is geometrically harder.
Which is why America needs more and better, and better-supported foster homes for all young people, and most of all for those hardest cases, young people who have been sexually trafficked and now have to do more than just survive it.
There is some good news. There are programs that work for kids, and believe it or not, for budgets. Rehabilitation after trafficking is expensive, but a functional foster home system is by far the least expensive solution. There are people in Dade County Florida, who think they can prove it.
Rikha Sharma Rani is a Bay area-based journalist and contributing editor for The Fuller Project. She was on the US-Mexico border in the fall of 2017 providing first-hand accounts of the devastating toll of family separation. She has written about the need for a gendered approach to criminal justice reform, a program to stop gun violence in Richmond, California and a school district in Connecticut working to reduce chronic absenteeism among preschoolers. In the lead up to the 2016 presidential election, she profiled five formerly incarcerated people who were casting their ballots for the first time. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Politico Magazine, The Lily, USA Today and the Columbia Journalism Review.
From 2014 to 2017, Rikha was Intelligence Director at the Solutions Journalism Network. She has worked extensively in the global health space, including as part of a team in New Delhi, India that negotiated drug prices for the treatment of HIV/AIDS in low-income settings. Rikha hails from Toronto, Canada and holds a Master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, where she studied economic and political development. She is a former editor-in-chief of the Journal of International Affairs.