The news of the relationship between foster care and the sex trade has made its way to the Capitol. In recent testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee former foster child, Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, cogently outlined the multiple ways in which the structure and function of the child welfare system create a smooth pathway from foster care to the sex trade. Not least of these is the fact that foster children generate income for the homes in which they reside. Whether the money that follows a foster child is sufficient to cover the costs of her stay in the foster home is another question for another time. The fact is that adults are paid to care for foster children.
“Never talk to strangers.” This important lesson in personal safety often involves a period of confusion and anxiety as young children try to understand who is a stranger and why it’s okay to talk to some strangers and not others. From the point of view of a child who has just been admonished not to talk to strangers, parents who casually chat with the person next to them in the grocery line or strike up a conversation with unknown parent at a playground are behaving quite recklessly, indeed. Eventually, by observing their parents’ behavior, children learn that it’s usually acceptable to chat with someone at a store or the playground, but not advisable to leave the premises with that person.
People talk about the sex trade and sex trafficking. The problem is that it’s not sex that’s being sold—it’s people. Poor people. Young people. Poor young people. It should not surprise us that the most vulnerable among us are the most likely to fall prey to sex traffickers. Some of these are people who are so impoverished that they have nothing to sell except their bodies in the hope that they might have a bite of food in exchange for allowing themselves to be used.
This question came from a friend who had opened her home to a young woman I’ll call Anna, who was attending a summer program in her community. My friend wanted her guest to be comfortable; she wanted to make sure that some of Anna’s favorite foods were on hand, that she had the information she needed to navigate the public transit system, and that the family’s schedule meshed with Anna’s school schedule.
“I just wanted to talk to someone and they gave me pills.” This lament that we have heard repeatedly from those who have spent time in foster care, is becoming increasingly common in all factions of the population. Brandon Gaudiano, professor of psychiatry at Brown University, in a recent New York Times Op Ed suggested that among the reasons for the decline in psychotherapy as a treatment of choice for emotional distress is that psychotherapy has an “image problem.”