Thursday, December 1, 2016

A present for pimps? New loophole in Family First Act would bring predators closer to their prey

UPDATE, NOVEMBER 29, 2022: The South Florida Sun-Sentinel has just published a searing series of stories about sex-trafficking, including one about how foster care  in general, and group homes in particular, increase the risk that children will be trafficked.  The story reveals that, sure enough, the Florida Department of Children and Families took the "presents for pimps" loophole, and drove a truck through it.  See the excerpt from the story at the end of this post

Florida: According to this news account, “child welfare officials are on the defensive this week after revelations that children in taxpayer-financed group homes are falling prey to sex traffickers.”
CaliforniaA federal report notes that “victims were often recruited by sex traffickers and pimps from group homes.”
Rhode Island: Participants at a conference conclude that “children in group homes are especially vulnerable [to sex trafficking].”
New York: A lawyer writes that “traffickers will often send one of their girls into group homes to find girls and urge them to leave by saying things like they will be well taken care of financially and have a ‘family’ so to speak who will care for them.”

Illinois: the Chicago Tribune devotes 4,000 words to a scathing exposé of one group home and institution after another that had become hunting grounds for sexual predators. The institutions themselves were so horrible, the Tribune reported, that for those forced to live there, even the streets seemed like a better alternative. That made it easy for the greedy to take advantage of the desperate.

No one should be surprised. Predators go where the prey are.
But that doesn’t mean Congress should make it easier for the predators. And they will do just that, offering up a Christmas present for pimps, if it passes the latest version of the so-called Family First Act. (As this is written, such passage is unlikely, but the bill’s fortunes seem to change by the day.) 

Abject Surrender to the Group Home Industry

In one of several acts of abject surrender to the group home industry, the new version of the bill adds a new exception to limits on federal funding for “congregate care.” In addition to all the other loopholes, federal foster care dollars would continue to flow freely to states for “care” provided to children in the following:
A setting providing high-quality residential care and supportive services to children and youth who have been found to be, or are at risk of becoming, sex trafficking victims

 Why would the group home industry be so keen on this particular exception? Probably because lobbyists for “providers” of institutional “care” know something that the bill sponsors and their staff may not. As John Kelly pointed out, an issue brief from the Department of Health and Human Services says that all foster children are “at high risk of being trafficked.”

I didn’t know about that issue brief. That’s why, until now, I couldn’t understand why people such as Trent Rhorer and John Burton would torture logic dredging up an example involving trafficking to make their case against the Family First Act.

In fact, even if one simply takes on faith  thatcontrary to research on residential treatment in general, there are some sexually trafficked youth who somehow would benefit from such treatment, the broad, vague loopholes in the original Family First Act already allowed reimbursement in such cases.

But there is no reason to have confidence in the child welfare system when it comes to these children. About four percent of all children enter foster care because of sexual abuse. By the time they’re in the system awhile, the federal government says, all of them are at risk. That’s not exactly a track record that inspires confidence.

Children as Collateral Damage

But now I understand why the group home industry puts sex trafficking cases front and center. It plays on one of the most emotionally charged issues in child welfare, and opens the ultimate loophole. And if, in the process, it actually exposes trafficking victims to more danger, I guess that’s just collateral damage.
The Tribune story gives a sense of what that damage looks like:

sexual exploitation … seems to be accepted as a fact of life at some of the large residential treatment centers that get millions of taxpayer dollars each year to care for Illinois’ most destitute and troubled young wards, a Tribune investigation found.
 The prostitution emerges against a backdrop of violence at the facilities where the threat of sexual coercion is common, residents frequently square off in fights, destroy property, abuse medications and attack peers or staff, government records show.
 Teenagers who were prostituted told the Tribune they would run away to escape the turbulence and brutality — then do what survival required on streets where they had no money or life skills. At the facilities, experienced residents introduced others to pimps, escort websites and street corners. Some disappeared into this world and never returned.
Even if HHS – which is probably about to be run by leaders profoundly hostile to any form of regulation – were to try to impose new regulations that tighten the definition of children at risk of sex trafficking, that wouldn’t solve the problem. It would just be the equivalent of putting great big signs on group homes and institutions that say: “Hey, pimps – over here!”

Why do well-meaning members of Congress and their staffs accept this loophole and, apparently, everything else the group home industry demanded? Probably because, after putting well over a year into the extremely difficult, painstaking process of crafting the legislation, they couldn’t bear to see it all go down the drain at the last minute.

It’s not just on the streets where the greedy take advantage of the desperate.

UPDATE, NOVEMBER 29, 2022: Now, six years after the above was written, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reveals how Florida exploited the “presents for pimps” loophole. From their story:

 In an effort to reduce the use of group homes, Congress in 2018 passed the Family First Prevention Services Act. It told states that the federal government will only fund two weeks of group home care for foster children, with a few exceptions.

 Florida changed its policy in 2020 to exploit an exception for trafficking victims. 

The state created group homes for children who are at risk of being trafficked — and defined that broadly. Under the state’s new definition, a child is considered at risk if he or she “has experienced trauma” and has run away, been sexually abused, was exposed to human trafficking, moved repeatedly within foster care, or interacted inappropriately with other people or on social media. 

Florida’s Children First, a Coral Springs foster child advocacy group, opposed the state’s change, arguing that the definition is so broad it could apply to more than half of the state’s foster kids. 

As of July, 150 group homes in Florida’s foster care system are for these at-risk children, Walthall said. 

DCF’s McManus said many were regular group homes that “implemented enhanced training of staff to better provide trauma informed care and protect those who are more vulnerable or at risk of trafficking.” 

Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First, said the number of kids in group homes would be much lower if at-risk group homes hadn’t been created. 

“The bottom line is Florida relied heavily on federal funds to pay for kids in group homes,” she said. “And when they saw that that source was going to dry up they had to come up with a way that they could keep putting kids in group homes.” 

The state doesn’t have an accurate tool for determining which children have been trafficked or are at risk. The screening tool used by the state since 2016 has flunked repeated efforts to validate its accuracy, the DCF’s own reports say. 

But it continues to be used today.