For the last 22 years, every January has been dedicated to raising awareness of human trafficking. As we use this month to rededicate ourselves to erradicating the evil of human trafficking, it is important to recognize that children in the foster care system are at especially high risk of victimization.

According to a Florida study, foster youth are twice as likely of being exploited by human traffickers than their peers who do not enter the system. The United States Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Children, Youth and Families estimates that between 50% and 90% of child trafficking victims have had contact with child protective services. Many of the reasons children enter foster care, such as neglect, mental and physical abuse, or family poverty, are the same factors that traffickers target in victims. These children seek stability, structure, or connection, needs that are easily exploited and manipulated by traffickers.

During Fiscal Year 2020, there were 47,913 youth in the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) conservatorship. Of that, 2,229 foster youth went missing throughout the course of the year. Thankfully, a total of 1,972 of the missing youth were recovered. Of those, 136 reported being victimized, 68 of those being victims of sex trafficking.

The risk to children in the Texas foster care system has increased over the last year with the dramatic rise in children who enter care without a safe placement. Known to the system as “children without placement,” or CWOP, these children sleep in hotels, DFPS offices, and unlicensed temporary shelters. In just one year, CWOP increased an alarming 785%. These children lack appropriate supervision and treatment services, and frequently run away from placement—a perfect storm that is ripe for exploitation by traffickers.

The current crisis has exposed longstanding structural issues within DFPS that the state is scrambling to remedy. While some progress is being made—CWOP numbers are beginning to come down—much more work needs to be done. Solving the problem will not be easy, as it will require the state to completely restructure the department from a management and operations perspective. However, over the last five years, the Legislature and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott have provided the state with the tools it needs to turn things around.

Since the 2014-2015 fiscal biennium, the Legislature has increased DFPS funding by more than $1.5 billion and approved an emergency appropriation of $55 million during the summer of 2021 specifically for solving the CWOP crisis. In addition, efforts are underway to decentralize the state’s foster care system to give local communities greater responsibility for serving children who enter the system. This new model, known as community-based care, is slowly bearing fruit. It is incumbent upon state leaders to put their full weight behind these reforms and hasten the expansion of community-based care to every region of the state.

Finally, the state must increase the availability of prevention and family preservation services to reduce the number of children who enter foster care. During the 87th regular session, the Legislature enacted measures to implement the federal Family First Prevention Services Act, which, for the first time, allows states to utilize federal foster care funds to provide services designed to keep children with their families and address the risk factors that make this population especially vulnerable to trafficking. Implementation of Family First is occurring through a pilot program that will be operated in two regions of the state with the goal of developing best practices for family preservation and increasing services for vulnerable families.

In doing these things, the state can win the fight against human trafficking of children by creating more stable environments and providing the children of Texas with the resources needed for a successful future.