A little-known aspect of child trafficking got attention Tuesday during a roundtable discussion organized by Rep. Patrick Meehan.
"A lot of these kids are in the foster-care system," said Rosemarie Vesci, an FBI special agent in the Philadelphia office.
Vesci was among 12 participants from federal law enforcement agencies, local district attorney's offices, and nonprofit organizations to give Meehan frontline information about human trafficking in general.
The Delaware County Republican explained that sex and labor trafficking of children and adults, girls and boys, fetches about $32 billion annually around the world, according to a U.N. agency, second only in illicit industries to drug trafficking.
About 800,000 people annually are sent across borders to work in the commercial sex and labor trades, Meehan said. In the United States, many victims are homegrown, with an estimated 300,000 trafficked domestically.
When it comes to children, several roundtable participants said they had worked with trafficking victims who had been living in individual and group foster homes.
Studies have shown that children in foster care are especially vulnerable to being trafficked, said Liz Miles of the nonprofit Pathways PA. Miles manages the group's Philadelphia shelter program for 13- to 17-year-old girls.
Many children were sexually and physically abused and chose homelessness to remaining in a bad situation.
"They don't know what love looks like and what healthy love looks like," she said.
Miles talked about older teens she has known - mainly girls, but sometimes boys - whose exploitation began with "survival sex." That happened when strangers invited homeless young people to crash on their couch and then insisted on sex as the rent payment.
Several speakers said many more resources were needed for victims, including safe housing for those who escape servitude. But that is where one goal among those trying to help victims clashes with another, they said.
A campaign to treat those who have escaped their situation as victims rather than as criminals has been successful in many states, said Leah S. Yaw of Devereux, a nonprofit behavioral health-care organization based in Villanova. An unintended consequence of that success has been to cut off the major source of funding for services to trafficking victims - federal criminal justice programs.
"It's right for them to be decriminalized," Yaw told Meehan, "but we must make sure to provide an alternative funding stream."
The roundtable was held in Norristown and hosted by Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, who called human trafficking "a monumental scourge."