Pope Francis recently declared – along with many other global religious leaders – that we must eradicate modern slavery by 2020. Gary Haugen, president of the International Justice Mission, reported in response from Rome that yes, it is possible to see slavery “mortally wounded” in our lifetime. It is encouraging to hear such hopeful predictions from leading figures in our world.
Such declarations are important, but they also run the risk of allowing us to isolate ourselves from an issue that often seems too insurmountable. We must ask what can we do, individually and in the local church, to prevent people in our very own communities from becoming victims of human trafficking in the first place.
We have online campaigns – like the End It Movement – with revolutionary goals, and they do “shine a light” on the existence of slavery. We do need to keep talking about slavery. Keep sharing statistics, keep retweeting those facts on Twitter – but we must not stop there. What we can accomplish through social media is limited. We must also invest in the lives of real people in our own communities. Social media is not a substitute for social action in our communities.
I suggest that if we want to eradicate slavery, we need to be present in the lives of those most at risk of becoming victims of human trafficking in our own communities. We know that minors at risk are likely to have some factors in common: a background of poverty, a history of sexual abuse, family and individual substance and physical abuse, sexual identity issues, learning disabilities, loss of a parent or caregiver, or a habit of running away from home. But there is one factor that is particularly disturbing: the FBI reports that 70% of domestic human trafficking victims come from the foster care system – despite that this government-funded safety net was designed to protect children whose families did not manage to protect them or, in the worst-case scenarios, actually neglected and endangered their own children. The numbers vary from state to state, but the FBI has reported these kinds of statistics for years.
How is This Possible?
Here are some things to consider:
The foster care system is supposed to be a safe place for children, but in many cases foster homes are not any better than the abusive homes Child Protective Services removed children from originally. For instance, one victim of sex trafficking told Malika Saad Saar, special counsel on human rights at the Raben Group and director of the Human Rights Project for Girls, that “in most of my 14 different placements in foster-care homes… I was raped and attached to a check. I understood very early that I could be raped, cared for and connected to money. It was therefore easy to go from that to a pimp, and at least the pimp told me that he loved me.”
An absence of consistent parental figures is also an issue. Even though there are many, many people involved in the lives of foster children, there are often no adults who remain throughout a child’s time in foster care, especially if a child is being moved from foster home to foster home, so the kind of permanent bond necessary for a child to find stability and safety is often elusive.
Additionally, children who run away from their homes, whether they live with biological parents or foster parents or in group homes, are at exceptionally high risk of being exploited, and are often approached by pimps within 48 hours of running away.
Unfortunately, there is a growing shortage of foster parents, with approximately 101,666 children waiting for adoption. Compare that to this reality: 179,314 pictures were posted on Instagram as part of the #EndItMovement campaign. That means more people participated in an online campaign for a day than there are kids waiting to be adopted. Another important thing to note is that there are 309,766 Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christian congregations in the U.S. according to the 2010 religion census. Yet foster care agencies cannot find nearly enough people willing to take children into their homes. So, how should we respond?
The Church’s Response
Obviously, committing to mentor, foster, or adopt youth in foster care for decades is not comparable to the five minutes it takes to post a picture. If it’s possible to get so many people on board to end sex trafficking through social media, and if it’s possible for people to invest in their religious communities, it must be possible for those people to love and support the most vulnerable families and children in their own communities. Throughout history the church has not just stood with vulnerable and marginalized people, but picked them up and carried them in its arms.
Christians are supposed to be good at looking out for the most vulnerable in their communities. But, of course, the church is also full of people who have already experienced trauma. Getting involved in other people’s lives and finding one’s self incapable of addressing the trauma that exists in both one’s own life and in the lives of others – those are reasonable things to fear. But fear cannot be the defining feature of the church. Fear is never a good enough reason to try and stay far away from the world’s “problems” – given that it would be impossible anyway, since all of us, including the churched, are already problematic enough, being sinners. But the good news is that we are God’s problem and God’s people. And if we are God’s people, we must believe in the possibility of receiving enough grace and strength through the church to be able to get involved in the world’s problems. The church is the Body God built to love His world, and we must humbly submit ourselves to become the people God uses to show His love to the world.
The reality is that love is a complicated business. But Christians have something unique to offer to the foster care world: the Body of Christ. This shows up in practical ways for parents, like having access to more available babysitters and donated meals, being able to ask the advice of doctors and therapists in their congregation, knowing other parents who might offer to drive their kids to appointments and events, not to mention retired teachers who could be free to tutor their kids after school – and all the other people who have committed to love and raise their children alongside them, regardless of the pain it might cause them when those children grow up to break their parents’ hearts. Foster and adoptive parents in the church have resources and support networks that many others in the child welfare system do not. But the church must get involved and educate itself to make a difference. And the evidence is there: it does make a difference when the church gets involved.
Being an abolitionist online isn’t enough to stop children from becoming victims of sex trafficking. But maybe you are a single twenty something, and you cannot imagine fostering or adopting a child at this point in your life. There are many other ways to be an abolitionist other than fostering and adopting children. If you are a twenty something and feel you are called to pursue a vocation that will serve vulnerable children and youth, there are plenty of options. In the realm of child welfare, there are not enough social workers, or mental health professionals, lawyers, therapists, and doctors. Child Protective Services are overloaded with cases, and budget cuts make it even more difficult for them to keep up with the needs of families. Christians need to be the first to say, “I am going to give decades of my life to a vocation that will directly serve these children.” How else will our country adequately serve vulnerable children?
Systems – like the United States’ child welfare system – are not machines. They depend on the investment of hours and hours by real people. They cannot run smoothly – cannot run at all – if nobody is investing those hours. Children coming from traumatic backgrounds need parents, doctors, teachers – they need therapists, they need policymakers, they need advocates in government – and they need real people to love them. We cannot say slavery is evil if we are not willing to do what it takes to protect those who are at risk of becoming enslaved or, for instance, becoming traffickers. To end slavery we must all make day-to-day investments of our skills, our time, our blood, our sweat, and our love. It may seem like a small thing to study for an exam or apply for a job, but it takes a thousand small steps to arrive at a glorious destination.
There is nothing wrong with saying you are shocked and appalled by the existence of modern slavery. There is nothing wrong with telling other people about the devastating reality of slavery, and trying to “get the word out.” But if we are people of the Word, we are also people of the Word made flesh. The amount of time we spend talking about big “social justice” issues needs to be proportional to the amount of time we spend working toward real change. Spending many long hours every year in training sessions to become foster parents, for instance, or years and years in school training to become social workers, or hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to become lawyers – these are the small sacrificial steps it takes to eradicate slavery. This is what it takes to do justice to our neighbors.
We must give ourselves for the freedom of other human beings. We must be willing to offer our lives, our bodies, our time, our sweat, our blood, our dreams, and step into the complexities of the foster care system. We must be willing to be overwhelmed, daily, by the brokenness in ourselves and in the world – even if we fail to save a child from jail or slavery, even if our children run away because of the trauma they have endured before they ever reached us. We must be willing to love like God loves the world: unconditionally, wholly, and forever.
Real change is a long journey that demands long-term investment. Figure out what you can do by yourself, with your friends and with your church. Encourage your whole church to get involved. Sign up for foster care classes. Support foster parents in your community. Become a Big Brother or Big Sister or volunteer for Case Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). Apply for law school. Study social work. Vote for representatives who are dedicated to fighting human trafficking. Be the police officer who treats a victim like a victim and not a criminal. Be the social worker who cares about her cases. Be the lawyer or judge who speaks to the young woman in juvenile detention like a human being. Be the mentor who makes the difference for a teenager’s future. Be the foster parent who actually loves the kids in his care. And maybe, become the one who says “I’ll love you forever,” and adopt one of the 101,666 kids waiting for a parent – before a pimp adopts them first. Pope Francis is right. We can end slavery. But let’s stop slavery before it even gets started.
This article was previously published on December 17, 2015 on sharedjustice.org. Used with permission.