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When foster care kids are sex trafficked, some states fail to figure it out

Nada Hassanein, on

Published in News & Features

For help, call 1-888-373-7888 or text *233733 for the 24/7 National Human Trafficking Hotline, a national, toll-free hotline.


When she was a 10-year-old foster child, Withelma “T” Ortiz often rode a public bus around the San Francisco Bay area, alone.

She’d frequent a bus stop by a barber shop. Little by little, the barber, who was 15 years older, befriended her, she said — buying her snacks and meals, giving her attention, gaining her trust. It wasn’t too long before he started selling her on the street and taking explicit photos of her to post online.

Ortiz wasn’t a stranger to abuse: She’d first been sex trafficked by her birth mom when she was 5 years old, and she was abused by foster parents throughout her childhood, she recalled.

Ortiz was in state custody and sex trafficked through age 17. She doesn’t remember how many group and foster homes she was placed in — she stopped counting at 14 homes. As she moved from one to another, the barber said he’d protect her from abusive foster parents. “You’re nothing more than a paycheck to them,” he’d tell her.


“He was the most consistent person in my life,” said Ortiz, who is now a 34-year-old advocate and policy adviser who travels the nation, working with nonprofits to help survivors and to train and educate people about human trafficking and how to prevent it.

Ortiz went missing from her foster homes dozens of times, sometimes for days or even weeks, as she was trafficked around California and across state lines in Nevada, Oregon and Washington. But caseworkers never properly screened her to uncover that she had been raped, she said.

Foster care children are especially vulnerable to sex trafficking, and a 2014 federal law requires state authorities to screen missing children when they are found to determine whether they were sexually exploited. But a federal audit suggests that some states are failing in that duty, missing opportunities to connect kids with help and prevent further harm.

“Many kids across the country still go under the radar due to screening models across states that lack uniformity, consistency,” said Ortiz, who testified before a U.S. House panel in favor of the federal law. “The push from the top, from government and state officials, needs to ensure that it happens.”


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