Elephant in the Room

The Truth About Child Trafficking

Reports out of Georgia and now Ohio this week have highlighted just how widespread and serious the issue of child trafficking is today in the United States. 

In the Georgia case, U.S. Marshalls rescued 39 children last week in “Operation Not Forgotten.” Of these, the Marshalls reported, about 15 are alleged to have been victims of sex trafficking, some were runaways, and one was a parental custody case. The children were all considered “critically missing” and at-risk. They were found across several different states. Also last week, the U.S. Marshalls announced the recovery of 25 missing children in Ohio, between the ages of 13 and 18, about a quarter of whom are believed to have been victims of trafficking.

These are some startling numbers, but the sad truth is that they represent but the tip of a Titanic-sinking-size iceberg. Over 300,000 children in the United States are considered “at risk of child exploitation,” according to a Business Insider report. And most stories highlighting “what you should know about child trafficking” emphasize that it is generally family and friends—not the stranger with the white cargo van in the parking lot—who first put children into harm’s way. Such “family and friends” do so for money, or reduction in rent, or transportation, or drugs. If the reader paid attention to such stories alone, he might walk away thinking that families represent the gravest danger to children when it comes to sex trafficking.

But such reports ignore some crucial realities. According to the same Business Insider report, children in foster care are most at-risk of falling into trafficking. In another study focusing on the sex trade in San Diego county, “lack of parental involvement” and “kinship care” were factors associated with a high number of cases. “The foster care system is at a huge risk for human trafficking,” reported San Diego County DA Summer Stephan, as are runaways and homeless children and teens.

But really, the problem when it comes to child trafficking and exploitation is not family per se, but rather fragility or broken families. Decades of research have proven that the married, two-parent family has always protected children better than any other family form. As Brad Wilcox has summarized, “girls and boys are significantly more likely to be abused when they are living in a cohabiting household with an unrelated adult—usually their mother’s boyfriend.” Wilcox quotes the Fourth Annual Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, which finds, “only 0.7 per 1,000 children living with two married biological parents were sexually abused, compared to 12.1 per 1,000 children living with a single parent who had an unmarried partner.” The study continues, “Compared to children living with married biological parents, those whose single parent had a live-in partner had more than 8 times the rate of maltreatment overall, over 10 times the rate of abuse, and nearly 8 times the rate of neglect.”

So what does it say that child trafficking is at such a high right now? American families are broken, and far too many children are slipping through the cracks. When these children find themselves in homes with one biological parents and one stepparent, or passed around through extended families, or put into foster care—it becomes far easier for ill-intentioned adults to take advantage of them than if they had been raised by their biological, married parents. And with recent statistics indicating that only one in every two American children is raised by his or her biological parents, it should come as no surprise that the U.S. is one of the worst places for child trafficking in the world.

The U.S. Marshalls should be commended—they saved over 50 children this week.

But to what kind of home will these children return?

is the managing editor of The Natural Family, the quarterly publication of the International Organization for the Family.

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