February 14, 2018 – The last few legislative sessions in Michigan have resulted in positive progress towards address human trafficking – tougher punishments for traffickers, more services for the trafficked, and Legislators should be commended for prioritizing this issue. The Governor recently proclaimed January as Human Trafficking Awareness Month in Michigan, as he has done over the past several years. Despite this attention and effort, however, there has been limited state attention to investment decisions that would help to prevent trafficking in the first place.
We know quite a bit about who is at risk of being trafficked – not surprisingly, they are our most vulnerable young people. They are current or former foster youth – The National Foster Youth Initiative reports that six in ten child sex trafficking victims had been served by the child welfare system and nearly nine of every ten child sex trafficking victims reporting to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) were in the care of social services or foster care when they went missing. They are homeless young people (sometimes the same group, but not always) – according to a recent study looking at youth in cities around the nation, including Detroit, fully one in five homeless youth had been trafficked and nearly one-third reported involvement in the sex trade.
The good news? There are things that we can do to stabilize the lives of these young people and prevent their victimization. And we can do these things right now –in the coming weeks, the Legislature will release their proposed budgets for the coming fiscal year. Here are a few things that they need to consider:
- Support Homeless and Runaway Youth by increasing funding for community organizations providing key services to this population. In Michigan, funding for these agencies hasn’t increased since 2001, despite significant increases in requests for services and needs of the youth requesting services. And there are still counties in Michigan that are not covered by these agencies.
- Stabilize Foster Care Transitions. Some young people who have been involved in the foster care system will be assisted by strengthening the network of providers serving homeless and runaway youth. But, there are a few more pieces necessary for this specific population, for whom the state of Michigan bears parental responsibility.
- Full funding for MYOI services in addition to staff. Last year the Legislature passed an increase in funding to ensure that MYOI staff are available statewide. This year, they need to include increases in service funding that when combined with private philanthropy and federal investment can provide those services to every young person in Michigan who can take advantage of them.
- Invest state resource to end the cliff between traditional and extended foster care for 18-21 year olds; do more outreach and more tracking to get kids services through that system.
- Adjust the Fostering Futures scholarship so that it is available to more young people trying to obtain post-secondary credential – flexibility, better layering with other scholarship programs to cover real costs.
- Extend the Michigan Earned Income Tax Credit to young people in or leaving foster care beginning at age 16.
- Invest in removing barriers to school attendance and graduation. We also know that young people who have successfully graduated from high school or have begun a path post-secondary are much less vulnerable to trafficking, but our failure to address young people’s traumatic experiences and their mobility has created additional barriers for many young people. We can remove these by investing in discipline systems that don’t punish behaviors borne of trauma; in attendance supports for kids without consistent residences; and in initiatives targeted toward getting more kids in care through high school successfully, including using alternative credit-bearing models and strengthening the adult education system.
- We must also sustain and improve access to other critical services for young people. Physical and behavioral health care access through the Medicaid program, including access to mental health and substance misuse services is essential, as is access to food through the SNAP program. Congress is talking right now about adding work requirements to both Medicaid and SNAP, which would have specifically adverse impacts on building stability for these young people. If Congress block grants or sends more decision making to the states for these programs, which has also been discussed, our Governor and Legislators will have to protect these young people.
Michigan’s legacy of work to address human trafficking could be strengthened by building stability for our most vulnerable young people. Over the next few months, we need to take that opportunity.
–Michele Corey is Michigan’s Children’s Vice President for Programs