COMMENTARY: Vulnerable children desperately need stability and love.
Like many others, I looked forward to watching The Sound of Freedom to learn about the true story of children rescued from sex trafficking. Fifteen minutes into the film, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I walked out of the theater shaken and distressed. After seeing some of the most gut-wrenching, horrifying scenes of young children being sexualized, kidnapped, abused and treated as dehumanized objects of scorn and pleasure, the statistics at the end of the film seemed bleak. The situation of human trafficking was worse here in the United States than in the film’s setting of Columbia where it seems like chaos and drug cartels reign supreme. In fact, human trafficking is the second-largest illicit industry in U.S., second only to the drug trade, according to UNICEF.
This film is a serious wake-up call to those of us who cannot fathom how anyone could think of harming a child in this way — and a call to action to take a more active role in protecting our children from those who actively prey on them.
But what about the children who have nobody looking after them?
Statistics consistently show that 60%-80% of trafficking victims in the U.S. spent time in foster care. If more Catholics were to commit to caring for the vulnerable children in the foster-care system in our own backyards by praying for them, opening our hearts and homes to them, and teaching them about their God-given dignity and worth, and if more churches were to embrace these children by coming alongside foster families and offering practical support, we could save thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of children from this fate.
As a foster and adoptive family, my husband and I began our journey into foster care after struggling with infertility. We longed for children and knew there were children in need of loving homes. As we began taking the classes to become certified foster parents, we were shocked to learn that there were more than 400,000 children in foster care, with more than 120,000 awaiting adoptive families.
We learned that children coming from families where they experienced profound neglect and abuse in their most formative years often have difficulty attaching to caregivers. Each time they are moved to a new home, their ability to attach to yet another family is further weakened. We learned that children who have been sexualized from a young age are conditioned to believe that their voices don’t matter and that their bodies are a means of making money. Children robbed of a normal childhood filled with love and safe boundaries frequently turn to drugs and alcohol in order to escape their trauma.
This sets the stage for a child to become a victim of trafficking. Runaways and children who age out of the system without a family to look after them are frequently targeted by traffickers as easy prey. Traffickers lure them in with disingenuous kindness, offering to feed and house children who have nobody else. Others will pretend to start a romantic relationship with a vulnerable young adult as a means to control the person, so he or she willingly allows him or herself to be trafficked. Once they are making money for the trafficker, threats of harm keep them enslaved.
Vulnerable children in foster care desperately need stability and love. They need a family who will take the time to learn trauma-informed parenting techniques such as Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI). They need the stability of a family who won’t give up on them when it gets hard. More than anything, they need to know their intrinsic value as children of God and not as objects of abuse for someone else’s pleasure.
My husband and I are so grateful to God for the gift of our children. Receiving each of them as the gift that they truly are has made us all the more passionate about helping other children to know the security of a loving family and the love of God. Our family founded a ministry, Springs of Love, to encourage, educate and equip Catholics to discern and live out the call to foster and adopt and provide resources and practical suggestions for ways to help.
We urge Catholics, and all Christians, to become more aware of the prevalence and horror of human trafficking and to look for ways of supporting vulnerable children in foster care. While not everyone is called to foster, everyone can do something to help.
An easy first step is to watch our video series, which can be found at SpringsofLove.org and on EWTN On Demand. These videos showcase the stories of real individuals and families who have been touched by fostering and adoption. We invite you to watch these stories and share them with family and friends — and even suggest a “viewing party” at your parish. You can invite local foster-care agency staff to speak about the children in need of families in your own community and find out if there are any foster families in your parish who need support.
Springs of Love can help your parish organize a “foster team” to support a foster family with prayer, a weekly meal and material support when a new child arrive or help with transportation or childcare or date-night plans. These little things may not seem like much, but they make a big impact in helping a foster family to feel supported so they can continue the hard work of fostering; as statistics show, 50% of foster families quit after the first year, but when supported by a care team, 90% continue fostering.
As The Sound of Freedom reveals, human trafficking is a serious evil that must be stopped. It can all feel so overwhelming, but everyone can do something. We can fight child trafficking through spreading awareness, praying for these vulnerable children, fostering a child ourselves, or by supporting foster families. These are practical ways we can help as individuals, families and parishes. By working together as the family of God, we can make sure no child ages out of foster care disconnected from a loving family.
Kimberly Henkel, Ph.D., is founder of Springs of Love, a ministry that offers Catholic foster and adoption support.
For information, resources and ways to get involved, visit SpringsofLove.org.