ATLANTA – Georgia youth in the care of the state’s foster care system are disproportionately likely to become victims of child sex trafficking, several experts in the field testified Monday.
Between 2018 and last year, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received more than 2,400 reports of missing children from foster care in Georgia, including 1,790 children, many of whom went missing multiple times during the year, according to Samantha Sahl, director of the national nonprofit The Child Sex Trafficking Recovery Services Team told a U.S. Senate subcommittee at a hearing in Atlanta.
Of the missing children, 410 have been identified as likely victims of child trafficking, she said.
Sahl and other witnesses blamed this trend on children running away from the horrific conditions they endure in foster care facilities due to systemic failures at the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS).
“We know we have an urgent problem when children feel better on the streets or with a human trafficker than in their foster homes,” Sahl said.
Monday’s hearing on conditions in Georgia’s foster care system was the third in the past two weeks held by the U.S. Senate Human Rights Subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga. At the first hearing, Ossoff revealed the results of an internal DFCS audit that showed the agency had failed to address risks and safety concerns in 84% of the cases brought to its attention.
The second hearing and Monday’s testimony focused on the number of children under DFCS custody who end up missing.
DFCS officials responded to the first two hearings with a letter accusing the subcommittee of failing to request information or responses from DFCS in advance of the hearings and alleging that the panel’s investigation was political in nature.
On Monday, Brian Atkinson, an attorney with the Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation (CEASE) Clinic at the University of Georgia School of Law, said his experience shows that entering Georgia’s foster care system puts children at risk of becoming victims of human trafficking to become.
“When a child’s caregivers, family, friends, communities and government fail to provide for their basic needs of food, shelter, safety, security and love, their survival instincts kick in and they look for other ways to meet those needs “That increases their risk of falling directly into the hands of human traffickers,” he said.
Tiffani McLean-Camp, 19, gave personal testimony Monday about her experience entering foster care at age 15 after being physically abused by adoptive parents and sexually abused by a family friend. She said the abuse continued while she was moved to different placements 20 times.
McLean-Camp said one of those placements was in a facility with a gate surrounded by barbed wire, where she was physically abused and overmedicated.
“It felt like prison,” she said. “I felt like an animal locked in a cage.”
After she became pregnant and her son was born prematurely, McLean-Camp said she and her infant son were temporarily separated and then placed in a shelter where she received no attention because of postpartum depression or physical complications from her pregnancy .
She said she did not receive a visit from her DFCS case manager and received no help from the agency.
“I had to learn everything myself,” she said. “I had to teach myself.”
“No child should have to go through the experiences you survived,” Ossoff told McLean-Camp after her testimony.
Atkinson said he believes the foster care system has made progress in adopting the concept of treating children who fall victim to sex trafficking as victims rather than criminals. But he said too many victims are still portrayed in a negative light, making it less likely they will get the help they need.
“When our customers contact DFCS, they are met with disbelief, denial and often no response at all,” he said.