More than 20% of children who went missing in the custody of the Georgia Division of Family and Children between 2018 and 2022 were likely victims of child sex trafficking, according to Samantha Sahl, director of the child sex trafficking recovery team at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
At a hearing of the Senate Human Rights Subcommittee in Atlanta on Monday, Sahl said children in foster care have often already suffered severe trauma.
“When children are then placed in foster homes or group homes that do not have the resources, training or support necessary to meet their needs for love, belonging and self-expression, escape from these placements often becomes a problem for them to resolve to meet those needs,” Sahl said.
“This creates a perfect storm that traffickers can cleverly exploit,” she added. “We know we have an urgent problem when children feel better on the streets or with a trafficker than in their foster homes.”
Sahl said 410 of 1,790 children were likely victims of human trafficking.
Monday’s hearing at Georgia State University College of Law was the latest in a series of public meetings and news conferences led by Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff of Georgia about the state’s Department of Human Services. The Senate subcommittee opened an investigation in February after media reported allegations of serious abuse and neglect at DFCS. Ossoff and Tennessee Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn are leading the effort.
Previous hearings have highlighted DFCS’s reported failure to meet its risk assessment and safeguarding obligations 84% of the time and hundreds of reports of children disappearing from care.
In an Oct. 31 open letter to Ossoff and Blackburn, DFCS lawyers rejected some of the committee’s findings.
“The Subcommittee’s misstatements, omissions and failure to request relevant information or responses from the Department prior to its published hearings and press conferences create the unfortunate impression that the objectives of this investigation are political in nature,” the letter said.
The attorneys point out that DFCS has a 14-page memo detailing missing children policies, a dedicated missing children division and a lower rate of missing foster children than in neighboring states Tennessee, Alabama and South Carolina, and less than half that high as in several other states, citing a May 2022 report from the Office of Inspector General.
Fulton County Assistant District Attorney Earnelle Winfrey said she has seen firsthand the devastating impact human trafficking can have on victims’ souls, but too often they are re-traumatized in state care and treated like criminals rather than victims .
“If they’re running from worry, what are they running from?” she said. “You need to take the time to listen to their backstory. Why don’t we train nurses to look forward and understand the trauma they endured before entering nursing? Can we overcome the perception of foster youth as unwanted, disposable children? How are we going to address the underlying trauma and root causes so that these children can heal?”
Tiffani McLean-Camp, 19, said she was placed in foster care in Georgia when she was 15 and experienced abuse, neglect, sexual assault and human trafficking.
She fought back tears as she described living in a homeless shelter with her premature son and having to wait six months for treatment because of birth complications.
“From the age of 15 until today, I have not received any help from you,” she said during her testimony. “I didn’t get any help. I have no help when it comes to life skills, medical or mental, nor help with support and skills. I didn’t get any help from you. From the age of 15 to 18 in this care I had to learn everything myself. I had to teach myself. I had to go around and ask people: How do you do this and that? How do you fill out an housing application? How do you fill out an application? How do you do this and how do you do it? It was a lot.”