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Fighting to protect youth in foster care from sex trafficking

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Rep. Dave Reichert. (Via House GOP Flickr)

When I became Chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources at the beginning of this Congress, I had already seen more victims of the horrors of sex trafficking than most people see in several lifetimes. For 33 years, I worked in law enforcement, including as the lead detective on the Green River Killer serial murder case and later becoming King County Sheriff in Washington state. For twenty years, I tragically collected the bodies of young women, girls really, who had become victims twice over – once from their circumstances which had pushed them into the arms of pimps and life on the streets, and the second time from crossing the path of an evil and sadistic man who took their lives. When we closed the case on the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway pled guilty to 49 murders and likely killed at least 20 more. So for me, sex trafficking isn’t just something I have chosen arbitrarily to combat, it is extremely personal.

I didn’t know this experience would become such a critical asset in Congress, but shortly after assuming the role of Chairman, we began holding hearings and soliciting public input on the state of this country’s foster care system. One thing that became quickly apparent was that foster children are a group frequently overlooked, but one of the most vulnerable, when it comes to sex trafficking. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, over 60 percent of children who are reported missing and identified as likely sex trafficking victims were in foster care or group homes before they ran away. In Los Angeles in 2010, officials reported that 59 percent of juveniles who are arrested for prostitution were from foster care.

From many witnesses who had experienced foster care firsthand, I learned that these problems were exacerbated by the sense of disenfranchisement youth in foster care felt, which has been created by some of the bureaucratic rules of the system – rules that prohibit ordinary childhood activities like playing on a sports team, carpooling with anyone other than their foster parents, getting an after-school job, etc. Once you understand how these young people are often bounced around from home to home and school to school, you start to understand how they can become victimized by someone who promises to help them when they feel they belong nowhere else. But instead of belonging, they become trapped in a world where they are trafficked on the streets.

My legislation that passed the House of Representatives yesterday, the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Improving Opportunities for Youth in Foster Care Act, makes serious strides to correct these oversights and instruct states to gather data and report on instances of sex trafficking. States will also have to set up ways to rehabilitate victims of sex trafficking and help them reintegrate back into society. I am fortunate to be joined in this fight by so many of my colleagues from both political parties, some of whom have legislation of their own to address other aspects of sex trafficking. This is not a problem that will simply go away, and it is not something we can ignore. The victims of the Green River Killer were often overlooked because people did not want to see them. They became invisible to the rest of the world. We cannot allow this to happen to our foster children, or any other child who has been victimized by sex trafficking. Our job is to end this, and end this now.

 


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